The Hague (AFP) - The effects of a deliberate campaign of mass rapes in the Central African Republic by the forces of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba a decade ago will be felt for generations, war crimes judges heard Monday.
Research among scores of victims from the 2002-2003 violence showed "alarmingly high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder," US expert Daryn Reicherter told the International Criminal Court (ICC).
War crimes judges in The Hague are holding three days of hearings to determine their sentence on Bemba after he was convicted of five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The five months of brutality unleashed by Bemba's Liberation Movement (MLC) in a bid to put down an attempted coup in CAR had caused "appalling" and "almost certainly long-lasting damage" to the population, Reicherter said.
"A single individual rape can be felt across multiple generations," he insisted, appearing for the prosecution.
The stress of such an ordeal can cause actual biological changes in a victim's brain, leaving them more vulnerable to PTSD and serious psychological problems.
There were also often several tragic outcomes including the breakdown of marriages, potentially leaving victims struggling on their own to care for their families.
Child rape victims suffered even greater damage, he warned.
Bemba's case is the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war, as well as to stress a military commander's responsibility for the action of his troops.
In their March verdict, the judges listed a chilling litany of rapes, murders and atrocities committed in CAR by MLC troops.
- 'Terror and torture' -
Men, women and children were all raped -- in one case three generations of the same family were gang-raped by MLC soldiers who held them at gun point and forced relatives to watch.
"This was not about sexual gratification, this was about terror and torture," the expert from Stanford University, California, said.
It was "more about humilation and control of a population," he added.
After a lengthy trial which opened in November 2010, the judges found Bemba guilty on all charges in March.
The three judges found the notorious rebel leader had retained "effective command and control" over the 1,500 MLC troops he sent to CAR to quell an attempted coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Catholic Bishop Fridolin Ambongo, appearing earlier for the defence as a character witness, sought to show that Bemba and the MLC had played a role in bringing "peace and stability" to the northwestern Equateur province of Democratic Republic of Congo.
While he said he had no knowledge of what had happened in neighbouring CAR, in his DR Congo province the MLC forces had "made it possible for the population to feel peace finally, because the MLC came to re-establish everything that had been destroyed."
The judges will pass sentence at an as yet unscheduled date, after also hearing this week from two victims.
But Bemba could face up to 30 years in jail -- or even a life sentence, if the court considers such a term is "justified by the extreme gravity of the crime".
A wealthy businessman-turned-warlord, Bemba became one of four vice presidents in the transitional government of DR Congo President Joseph Kabila.
In 2006, he lost to Kabila in a presidential election run-off and fled to Europe. He was arrested in 2008 in Brussels and handed over to the ICC.
His MLC militia has since morphed into a political party and is currently the second-largest opposition group in the National Assembly.