Congolese warlord’s ICC trial opens

GavelThe trial of former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda opened at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, where the ex-rebel dubbed “The Terminator” faces 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ntaganda, who surrendered to the US embassy in Kigali in 2013, stands accused of orchestrating hundreds of deaths in savage attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as recruiting and raping child soldiers.

The 41-year-old, dressed in a white shirt with a grey-striped tie, appeared calm as he sat in the dock before judge Robert Fremr in The Hague-based court.

During an initial two-day session, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was to present the prosecution’s opening arguments first, after which the defence will address the court.

Ntaganda is also due to make a statement — breaking his silence for the first time publicly since he unexpectedly turned himself in two years ago.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges arising out of brutal ethnic attacks on civilians in the restive northeastern Congolese province of Ituri in 2002-2003.

Prosecutors say however that he played a central role in a conflict rights groups believe has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.

Ntaganda “recruited hundreds of children… and used them to kill and to die in the fighting,” Bensouda told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the trial opening.

Girl soldiers were “routinely raped,” the prosecutor added.

Prosecutors have collected 8,000 pages of evidence, from more than 2,000 victims, and plan to call some 80 witnesses — 13 of them experts and the rest victims.

Three former child soldiers in Ntaganda’s rebel Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) will also take the stand, their lawyers said.

– ‘Innocent’ –

Ntaganda’s lawyer Stephane Bourgon said his client would seek to prove his innocence, with the case also to be broadcast on community radio stations in the DRC.

“Mr Ntaganda maintains his innocence in respect of every charge laid against him. He intends to present a thorough defence,” Bourgon told reporters at the ICC’s fortress-like headquarters in a suburb outside the city on Wednesday.

Ntaganda, 41, was once one of the most-wanted fugitives in Africa’s Great Lakes region until he unexpectedly walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in March 2013 and asked to be sent to The Hague.

He was the founder of the M23 rebel group that was defeated by the Congolese government in late 2013 after an 18-month insurgency in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu region.

Observers say Ntaganda was most likely fearing for his life as a fugitive from a rival faction within M23, but his motives for surrendering to the ICC remain unclear.

Also nicknamed “The Terminator”, the once-feared rebel commander known for his pencil moustaches, cowboy hats and love of fine dining, faces 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity.

The court had issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda — the first in 2006 and the second with additional charges in 2012.

He had managed to evade capture mainly because he had remained a powerful commander.

The Rwandan-born Ntaganda is accused over his role in attacks on a number of Ituri towns over a year starting in September 2002.

His former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012 on charges of using child soldiers, one of only two convictions by the court since it was set up 12 years ago.

Born in 1973, Ntaganda is among a dozen Africans who have been in the custody of the ICC, a court criticised for apparently only targeting leaders from the continent. His trial is set to be complex and last several months.

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