THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A rebel leader known as "The Terminator" told judges trying him at the International Criminal Court on Thursday that he was a professional soldier who never attacked civilians and tried to restore peace during a brutal conflict in eastern Congo.
"I have been described as The Terminator, as an infamous killer, but that is not me," Bosco Ntaganda said on the second day of his trial on 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"I have never attacked civilians," he added during a nine-minute speech to the court. "I have always protected them."
His comments were a stark contrast to how prosecutors portray Ntaganda — as the leader of a rebel militia that murdered, raped and persecuted innocent villagers, often using child soldiers, in the resource-rich Ituri region of Congo during a brutal conflict there from 2002-2003.
Ntaganda also denied allegations by prosecutors that he has attempted to influence witnesses. His lawyers on Thursday said prosecutors have insufficient evidence for judges to convict him
First indicted in 2006, Ntaganda was for years a symbol of impunity in Africa, once even serving as a general in Congo's army, before turning himself in in 2013 as his powerbase crumbled.
The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, on Wednesday called him a "notorious and powerful" military leader who commanded troops who slaughtered hundreds of civilians in Ituri.
Sarah Pellet, a lawyer representing 297 former child soldiers, told the three-judge panel that recruiters from Ntaganda's militia took children from school yards or forcibly snatched them from their families and fed many of them drugs and alcohol to dull their fear in battle.
Young girls were repeatedly gang raped and made into "wives" for senior commanders.
Pellet said the girls were victims twice over.
"They are victims of rape and sexual violence and some of them gave birth to other victims: Children who will never know their fathers and who are a constant reminder of the reprehensible acts inflicted on their mothers," she said.
Prosecutors are scheduled to call their first witness Sept. 15.