A former vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo went on trial at the International Criminal Court on Monday accused of letting his troops rape and kill in the Central African Republic.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, 48, is the most senior political leader to be detained so far by the ICC. He is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.
Mr. Bemba is accused of leading troops into the Central African Republic between late 2002 and early 2003 at the invitation of Ange-Felix Patasse, the republic's president at the time, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to put down coup attempts.
Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Mr. Bemba sent about 1,500 troops into the CAR, where they committed hundreds of rapes and pillaged property to spread terror and devastate communities, and that Mr. Bemba failed to control his forces.
"Bemba's troops stole the possessions of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world," Moreno-Ocampo said. "Women were raped systematically to assert dominance and to shatter resistance. Men were raped in public to destroy their authority and their capacity to lead."
Mr. Bemba pleaded not guilty to all five charges through his lead defence lawyer Nkwebe Liriss.
"I have the regret to tell you that you will be viewing for the first time, and let us hope the last time, the most unfair trial that international justice has ever seen," Mr. Liriss told journalists outside the court.
He raised concerns about the detention of Mr. Bemba, the freezing of his assets and a lack of sufficient financing provided by the court for his defence.
Outside the court, Margot Wallstrom, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said the trial signalled no leader is above the law and that respecting women's rights in warfare is an "obligation not an aspiration."
"This trial represents a milestone in the history of international criminal justice and this is against the backdrop of wartime sexual violence having been one of history's greatest silences and the world's least condemned war crime," she said.
Birgid Inder at the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice, which documented the rapes in the CAR, said many women were "rejected by their families, ostracised by the communities, contracted HIV and gave birth to children as a result of rape." She said they continued to experience medical problems and high levels of trauma.
Mr. Patasse was forced out of power by Francois Bozize who ousted him in the 2002-2003 war and won a 2005 presidential election.
Defence lawyers for Mr. Bemba, who was arrested in Belgium in 2008 and transferred to the ICC in The Hague, have asked why neither Mr. Patasse nor Mr. Bozize have been indicted by the ICC.
Mr. Bemba is eligible to stand in the 2012 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but one of his defence lawyers told Reuters he had not yet decided whether he would stand if acquitted by the court.