DRC's warlord Ntaganda pleads not guilty in trial

Former DR Congolese rebel leader pleads not guilty as he faces 18 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity during trial in International Criminal Court

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

DR Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda stands in the courtroom of the ICC during the first day of his trial at the Hague, September 2, 2015.

Updated Sep 4, 2015

Former warlord Bosco Ntaganda in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) pleaded not guilty before a trial conducted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he was being tried over war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the rape of child soldiers within his own rebel faction.

The Rwandan-born Ntaganda, nicknamed "the Terminator" for his reputation as a brutal commander, is facing up to 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during his trial, which takes place at The Hague on Wednesday, after turning himself in two years ago.

Ntaganda is believed to have played a vital role in vicious ethnic attacks on civilians in the northeastern DR Congolese province of Ituri between 2002-2003, in a conflict, which human rights activists believe left some 60,000 dead since 1999, according to prosecutors.

"Ntaganda recruited hundreds of children ... and used them to kill and to die in the fighting," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.

The female soldiers were "routinely raped," the prosecutor added.

"This trial is about Bosco Ntaganda and how he took advantage of the ethnic tensions in Ituri to gain power and money," she said.

Prosecutors have collected some 8,000 pages of proof and will be calling some 80 witnesses, of whom include 13 experts and the rest are victims.

Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips, reporting from The Hague, stated that the trial could go on for weeks - if not months - and many of the witnesses will be flown from the DRC to give their testimonies.

From the victims to take the stand, three will be former child soldiers in Ntaganda's Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), their lawyers said.

Ntaganda's lawyer Stephane Bourgon pressed that his client will work on proving his innocence before the ICC's judges.

Ntaganda is "in good shape, he's doing fine, he is looking forward to having a chance to present his case," Bourgon told reporters.

Ntaganda’s accusations are mainly targeted on the attacks that he conducted on a number of Ituri towns over a year starting in September 2002, specifically the town of Kiwanja which witnessed a massacre during that period where at least 150 people were killed within 24 hours.

Residents of the areas attacked by Ntaganda’s rebel factions blame him for the violence and the scars that still run deep.

"We are sure what happened here was under the control of Bosco Ntaganda and we want the law to take its course," Jean Claude Bambaze, a human rights campaigner, told Al Jazeera.

Ntaganda (41) was once one of the most-sought after fugitives in Africa's Great Lakes region until he surprisingly strutted into the US embassy located in the Rwandan capital in March 2013 and asked to be sent to the ICC court in The Hague.

He enlisted in the government military in 2009, and was later promoted to the rank of general, commanding up to 50,000 soldiers, many of whom are former rebels who remained loyal to him.

He defected from the army in April 2012 and went into hiding, taking along with him at least 600 heavily armed soldiers.

TRTWorld and agencies