The International Criminal Court has convicted former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba of murder, rape and pillage for acts by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-03.

The judgment was hailed as a landmark decision in the fight against impunity for sex crimes in conflict.

Bemba's unanimous conviction on Monday marked the first time the court has convicted an accused based on his role as a military commander. It also was the court's first judgment recognizing rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

Highest-ranking person convicted by ICC

Bemba, 53, is the highest-ranking person yet convicted by the court in The Hague, Netherlands. He showed no emotion as Judge Sylvia Steiner read out the long judgment highlighting the horrific crimes carried out by his militia.

He will be sentenced following a separate hearing. His lawyers can appeal the convictions.

Steiner outlined a litany of rapes by members of Bemba's militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, after it was deployed to the Central African Republic to help forces loyal to then-president Ange-Feliz Patasse fight rebels led by Francois Bozize. Bozize's forces ultimately won and he replaced Patasse as president.

Steiner said women, girls and men were targeted by Bemba's forces, often with multiple soldiers raping women and girls in front of other family members.

In one incident, a man's wife was gang raped and when he protested he, too, was raped at gunpoint.

'Entire families victimized'

"Entire families were victimized," Steiner said. "Victims included the elderly, men, women and children."

Bemba was convicted even though he spent much of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The three-judge panel said he was able to communicate with his troops using radios and satellite and mobile phones and also saw reports of their grave crimes in the media.

Steiner called what little action he did take to prevent or punish crimes by his forces "grossly inadequate."

The convictions for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity will be a boost for court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who has made the fight against sexual assault in conflict one of her priorities.

"[Prosecutors] will spare no efforts to continue to bring accountability for such heinous crimes in future cases," Bensouda said in a statement.

'Still a profound need for justice'

Human rights activists also welcomed Bemba's conviction.

"This first guilty verdict at the ICC for sexual violence shines a spotlight on the use of rape as a weapon of war," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

"There is still a profound need for justice for these crimes and other atrocities in both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo," she said in a statement. "The ICC prosecutor should bring further cases against those who bear responsibility for the gravest crimes in these countries."

Descartes Mponge, secretary general of the Congolese rights group ACADHOSHA, said the judgment "strengthens the ICC's credibility in Africa, where it is accused of bias and politicization."