- Associated Press - Monday, November 22, 2010

THE HAGUE | Congo’s former vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of murder, rape and pillage at the start of his war-crimes trial, in a case the chief prosecutor says will define a commander’s legal responsibility to control his troops.

The trial of Mr. Bemba, 48, is only the third to get under way at the International Criminal Court since it began work in 2002. Mr. Bemba, who had been seen as a potential presidential candidate in Congo’s next election, is the most senior political figure in the court’s custody.

“The International Criminal Court’s decision will influence the behavior of thousands of military commanders” around the world, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told the three-judge panel.

Wearing a dark gray suit and blue tie, Mr. Bemba sat impassively with his arms crossed in front of him as his lawyer pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.

Prosecutors say Mr. Bemba allowed 1,500 members of his personal militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, to run amok in Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 after the country’s then-president, Ange-Feliz Patasse, asked for its help in an ultimately unsuccessful fight against rebels led by Congo’s former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.

Mr. Moreno Ocampo said small gangs of Mr. Bemba’s troops systematically invaded homes to terrorize civilians, aiming to prevent them joining the rebellion.

“They stole all possessions that could be carried off and raped women, girls, elders regardless of their age. If the civilians resisted the rape or pillaging, they were killed,” he said.

The rapes “were crimes of domination and humiliation” targeting women and men in positions of power, he added.

Mr. Moreno Ocampo said Mr. Bemba did not explicitly order the atrocities but deliberately turned a blind eye to them, giving troops “license to attack civilians.”

“As superior, Jean-Pierre Bemba is even more responsible than his subordinates,” Mr. Moreno Ocampo said. “A commander who lets his troops carry out such criminal tactics is hundreds of times more dangerous than any single rapist.”

Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict, said the trial would help shatter the silence that surrounds mass rape used as a weapon, which she said is normally met with “mass impunity.”

“It is not that wartime rape is new,” Ms. Wallstrom told reporters at the courthouse. “What is new is the willingness of the international community to address it, not as random acts of a few renegade soldiers but as a calculated crime.”

Prosecutors plan to call up to 40 witnesses, including more than a dozen rape victims, and expect to take six months to present their evidence.

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