PARIS — Just days after turning himself in at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, Congolese war-crimes suspect Bosco Ntaganda made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
After years of fleeing justice, Ntganda finally appeared before the ICC to start a lengthy process to decide whether to press war crime charges against him.
Ntganda spoke in Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda - the Democratic Republic of Congo's tiny neighbor that is often accused of meddling in Congolese affairs. He said he was born in Rwanda, but identified himself as a Congolese soldier. He said he understood his rights and the crimes he is accused of, which include murder, rape, pillaging and using child soldiers.
Ntganda said he is not guilty, before being cut off by the presiding judge who said this was not the time to enter a plea.
Ntganda's subdued and soft-spoken manner does not fit with his reputation. Nicknamed "The Terminator," he allegedly committed atrocities during 15 years as a rebel fighter in mineral-rich eastern Congo. Most recently, he was considered a key leader of the M23 rebel group, which launched a major offensive against the Congolese government last year, briefly capturing the North Kivu capital of Goma.
At the ICC, he faces accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the northeastern Ituri region in 2002 and 2003. He is also accused of recruiting underage soldiers last year for the M23 rebellion.
But it will be months before the court decides whether to pursue the charges against him. The judge set a provisory date of September 23 to make that decision. The prosecution and defense are also meeting in mid-April to discuss documents and witnesses each side is pursuing.
Ntgada's appearance Tuesday aids the stature of the criminal court, after the collapse of several cases it was pursuing. Earlier this month, the ICC dropped crimes-against-humanity charges against a prominent Kenyan politician, citing problematic witnesses and government stonewalling.