A former Congolese warlord pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of recruiting child soldiers and sending them to fight during the first ever trial by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The rebel group of former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga is charged with recruiting and training hundreds of children to kill, pillage and rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2002-2003. But on Monday, Lubanga, through his lawyer, pleaded not guilty when asked by the International Criminal Court's presiding judge, Sir Adrian Fulford.
"We are obliged to ask whether or not at this point in time, either the accused himself or you on his behalf wish to indicate whether he is guilty or not guilty," said Sir Adrian Fulford.
Lubanga, who founded and headed the Union of Congolese Patriots rebel group, is accused of recruiting children under 15 to kill ethnic Lendus in Congo's eastern Ituri region. He was handed over to the court in 2006.
The court's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said some of the child soldiers recruited by Lubanga's group are now using drugs. Others are engaged in prostitution or are jobless or orphans.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to be heard in the case, which is the first trial by the war crimes court since it was established in 2002.
Eastern Congo as a whole has been torn apart by fighting from various rebel groups and militias for years. In an unprecedented move last week, Congo and Rwanda joined forces to rout the groups. So far, this has led to the arrest of one top rebel, ethnic Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda.