THE HAGUE — Democratic Republic of Congo former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba denied charges of war crimes Monday as his trial opened with prosecutors blaming him for his army's campaign of rapes and killings.
Bemba is charged at the world's top war crimes court with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities of about 1,500 fighters of his private Congolese Liberation Movement between October 2002 and March 2003 in the Central African Republic (CAR).
International Criminal Court Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in his opening statement that Bemba had "knowingly permitted" his troops to commit hundreds of rapes, pillaging and killing.
"Groups of two or three soldiers invaded houses, one by one. They raped women ... regardless of their age. When civilians resisted, they were killed," he said.
"Jean-Pierre Bemba was the military commander with effective authority and control over the troops that committed these crimes," he said.
"The massive rapes were not only sexually motivated, they were crimes of domination and humiliation, directed against women but also against men with authority."
Bemba pleaded not guilty to the five charges. His lawyer, Nkwebe Liriss, dismissed the investigation as biased and botched, and said judges would not be able to reach a verdict beyond all reasonable doubt.
The 48-year-old Bemba, who was arrested in Brussels in 2008, risks life behind bars.
Prosecutors say the trial before The Hague-based court is the first in the history of international justice of a military commander for indirect criminal responsibility for rapes committed by his fighters.
It will serve to define the legal responsibility of commanders in every army to control their troops, they say.
Bemba sent 1,500 of his troops into the CAR after the country's then president Ange-Felix Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by former armed forces chief Francois Bozize.
Prosecutors say about 400 rapes were recorded in Bangui, the CAR capital, in five months of fighting.
"The rapes, often collective, were perpetrated on women, girls, children, the elderly, even men -- which we did not know until now -- in public," said Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson, a CAR lawyer representing victims.
"Rape was used as a true weapon of war with the goal of punishing the civilian population suspected of complicity with the (CAR) rebels," she said.
Bemba's troops were responsible for "the most important crimes" committed in the CAR during the fighting, Moreno-Ocampo told journalists ahead of Monday's hearing.
"At the beginning we were thinking that Bemba and Patasse were the most responsible, but evidence showed that the troops who committed the crimes were under the control of Bemba," the chief prosecutor said.
Bemba fled DR Congo in 2007 after coming second to Joseph Kabila in a presidential election, and subsequently refused to disband his militia, leading to clashes that left hundreds dead.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to give evidence in the trial, a process which is expected to take six months, starting on Tuesday with a CAR district leader called by prosecutors.
The court has authorised 759 victims to participate in the trial, a figure that is likely to grow as it has a further 500 applications to examine, according to registrar Sylvana Arbia.
Bemba's lawyer said the court was being used as a political tool by Bozize, who asked it to take the case.
"We must pay attention to corrupt politicians who use the court apparently to obtain justice but in reality to obtain the political elimination of their enemies," Liriss said.
"The hierarchical responsibility falls on the supreme command of the Centrafrican army," he said, adding it was regrettable the CAR chain of command would not be called to testify.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »