Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Congolese warlord 'keen to prove innocence at war crimes trial'

The Hague (AFP) - Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda will seek to prove his innocence at his impending war crimes trial before the International Criminal Court, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

The former leader of rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who turned himself in in 2013, will face 18 charges including the rape of child soldiers by his rebel army, when his highly-anticipated trial opens in The Hague-based court on Wednesday.

"Mr Ntaganda maintains his innocence in respect of every charge laid against him. He intends to present a thorough defence," his lawyer Stephane Bourgon told a press conference at the ICC's fortress-like headquarters in a suburb outside the city.

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

Prosecutors say Ntaganda played a central role in ethnic attacks on civilians in the mineral-rich and restive northeastern Congolese province of Ituri in 2002-2003, in a conflict rights groups believe has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.

It is also the first time since the ICC opened its doors in 2003 that a suspect will be charged with raping and abusing women and children fighting within his own militia.

"Bosco Ntaganda is not only known... in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also outside the region due to his reputation as a notorious person whose behaviour has raised alarm far beyond the Great Lakes region," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told journalists.

The court will hear from about 80 witnesses, including some former child soldiers.

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.

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. He has already pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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.

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