By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese warlord known as "the Terminator" who evaded arrest on war crimes charges for seven years, denied guilt when he appeared for the first time at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Ntaganda unexpectedly gave himself up to diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda last week, walking in off the street and demanding to be handed over the ICC. Within days he was put on a plane to The Hague.
He is accused of murder, rape and other crimes over a 15-year-period of fighting in Rwandan-backed rebellions in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
His appearance almost seven years after the court first issued a warrant for his arrest is a much-needed success for the ICC following the collapse of several cases.
Dressed in an ill-fitting dark blue suit, blue shirt, and stripy tie - attire most likely provided by the court - a stooped and bowed Ntaganda appeared ill at ease in the courtroom on Tuesday, leaning forward and looking down as the hearing began.
He confirmed his name, gave his age as 39, and told the court he was not guilty of the charges, but a judge interrupted and said this was not the occasion for discussing his guilt.
Asked whether he was aware of the charges against him, Ntaganda said: "I was informed of these crimes, but I plead not guilty."
Ekaterina Trendafilova, who was presiding alone over the hearing, stopped him.
"I wouldn't like to interrupt you, because you should feel at ease," she said. "But the purpose of this initial hearing is ... to know whether you have been informed about the crimes ... your rights, and we are not discussing now anything related to your guilt or innocence."
"I was born in Rwanda but I grew up in Congo. I am a Congolese citizen," Ntaganda told the court, speaking in Kinyarwanda through interpreters. "I was a soldier in the Congo."
Ntaganda is accused of recruiting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution, sexual slavery and rape during a 2002-2003 conflict in northeastern Congo's mineral-rich Ituri district.
Most recently, he was a commander in the M23 rebel movement, but his whereabouts had been unknown after he had fled to Rwanda with hundreds of his followers, and his decision to turn himself in to the U.S. Embassy in the capital Kigali caught diplomats there by surprise.
Analysts said he may have felt that his life would be safer in an ICC detention cell than in an increasingly hostile Rwanda.
A date of September 23 was set for the next hearing at which judges will decide whether the evidence against Ntaganda is strong enough to warrant a trial - by no means a foregone conclusion.
Recently, prosecutors withdrew their case against Kenyan civil servant Francis Muthaura after a witness retracted his testimony, prompting lawyers for his co-accused Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya's president-elect, to charges also be dropped against him.
With many of the court's suspects, including Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, at large and beyond its reach, Ntaganda's arrival is especially welcome to prosecutors and activists.
"Ntaganda's appearance at the ICC after years as a fugitive offers victims of horrific crimes a real hope of seeing justice," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch.
"Ntaganda's detention in The Hague shows that no one is above the law."
(Editing by Sara Webb and Robin Pomeroy)