Congo-Kinshasa: Congolese Rebel Leader Appears Before ICC in the Hague

The alleged war criminal, Bosco Ntaganda, has appeared before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to plead not guilty. He stands accused of crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ntaganda's hearing on Tuesday in The Hague served to establish the identity of the accused and the charges levied against him.

Nevertheless, the defendant insisted on telling the court of his innocence. "I plead not guilty," said Ntaganda, 39.

The presiding judge, Ekaterina Trendafilova, reminded him that the trial would not formally begin for several months.

"I wouldn't like to interrupt you, because you should feel at ease," said Trendafilova. "But the purpose of this initial hearing is ... to know whether you have been informed about the crimes ...your rights, and we are not discussing now anything related to your guilt or innocence."

The ICC issued a warrant for Ntaganda seven years ago for his alleged involvement in crimes against humanity between 2002 and 2003 in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time, the Congolese rebel leader, known as "The Terminator" led troops that have been accused of perpetrating a multitude of abuses, including murder, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers and rape.

Eastern Congo is experiencing renewed fighting. More than 30 people died in Kitchanga in clashes between the army and rebels of the "Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo" (APCLS). (01.03.2013)

Most recently, the accused led the DRC rebel troops, known as M23. He is believed to have fled to Rwanda along with some of his troops over the past year following a defeat dealt by government troops.

Last week, Ntaganda surprised diplomats when he turned himself over to authorities at the US embassy in Rwanda's capital city, Kigali, making him the first suspect ever to do so. The defendant was flown to The Hague soon after.

Defense lawyer Hassane Bel Lakhdar told the news agency AFP on Tuesday that Ntaganda "intended to file an application for temporary release, but it will not be today."

"Ntaganda's appearance at the ICC after years as a fugitive offers victims of horrific crimes a real hope of seeing justice," Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch told the news agency Reuters.

"[His] detention in The Hague shows that no one is above the law."

The ICC has charged Ntaganda with seven counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity.

Hearings against Ntaganda are scheduled to begin on September 23 in The Hague.

(AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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