The Hague (AFP) – Former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed “The Terminator”, goes on trial before the International Criminal Court Wednesday, accused of war crimes including the rape of child soldiers by his own rebel army.
The once-feared rebel commander with a flair for pencil moustaches, cowboy hats and fine dining, faces 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty.
Presiding Judge Robert Fremr will open proceedings against Rwandan-born Ntaganda at 0730 GMT at the court’s Hague-based headquarters.
ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will speak first, followed by Ntaganda’s lawyers and those representing some 2,149 victims in the case.
Prosecutors say Ntaganda played a central role in ethnic attacks on civilians in the mineral-rich but restive northeastern Congolese province of Ituri in 2002-3, in a conflict rights groups believe has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.
At a hearing a year ago to confirm charges against Ntaganda, chief prosecutor Bensouda accused the former warlord of allowing his fighters to rape child and woman soldiers in his own rebel army, or keep them as sex slaves.
One female child soldier received 150 lashes and was raped as punishment, with her wounds taking a month to heal, Bensouda said.
“This case is highly significant because for the first time in international criminal law, the ICC has charged a commander with acts of rape and sexual slavery committed against children within his own militia group and under his command,” Brigid Inder of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice said in a statement.
– Feared warlord –
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.
The court issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda — the first in 2006 and the second with additional charges in 2012.
The Rwandan-born Ntaganda is accused on account of his role in attacks on a number of Ituri towns over a year starting in September 2002.
Prosecutors accuse Ntaganda of leading a November 2002 attack on the gold mining town of Mongbwalu that lasted six days and left 200 villagers dead.
The ex-warlord personally stands accused of murdering a priest during the attack, whom he allegedly shot several times in the head with a revolver.
He had managed to evade arrest after the tribunal’s first warrant was issued mainly because he remained a powerful commander.
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 11 years ago.
UN and other experts accuse Kigali of being Ntaganda’s master and pulling the strings in the M23, an allegation Rwanda has consistently denied.
Born in 1973, Ntaganda is one of at least a dozen Africans who have been in the ICC’s custody and the court has been criticised for apparently only targeting leaders from the continent. His trial will last several months.