THE HAGUE - Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of DR Congo, on Monday rejected accusations by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court that forces he led had used rape as a weapon of war.
Bemba rejected the war crimes charges during the pre-trial hearing at the court in The Hague after which the judges will decide if there are sufficient grounds for trial.
His lawyers argued that the claims were part of a political conspiracy against him.
Bemba had commanded a militia force in the Democratic Republic of Congo-based, said prosecutors.
Between October 2002 and March 2003, Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) had waged a campaign of terror against civilians in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), they alleged.
Ange Felix Patasse, then president of CAR, had invited the force into the country to help put down a coup led by General Francois Bozize. It was Bozize, after he took power in 2003, who asked the ICC to probe the events.
"Jean-Pierre Bemba wanted to traumatise and to terrorise the population and to make them unwilling to support the rebels," prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told a panel of three judges.
"To do this, he chose rape as his main weapon ... rapes against mothers in the presence of their children and rapes of children as their parents were forced to watch.
Bemba, the 46-year-old Belgian-educated son of a rich businessman, sat far back in his chair with folded arms for much of the morning session, passing an occasional note to his lawyers.
Dressed in a blue suit and striped tie, he sat motionless for a media photo session before the start of the hearing, and afterwards curtly introduced himself to the judges by simply stating his name.
Bemba was arrested on an ICC warrant in Brussels last May. He faces five charges of war crimes and three of crimes against humanity for rape, torture, pillaging and murder committed by his MLC movement.
Bensouda told the court of the alleged ordeal of a man identified as "Witness 23", who was raped in front of his wife and children and told investigators that afterwards "they came to my wife, in front of my eyes they abused my wife. After they finished with my wife they came to my children."
His wife had later died.
"It is the responsibility of the office of the prosecutor to stand up for Witness 23, to stand up for his wife, to stand up for his children and the hundreds of victims in the Central African Republic who suffered the same fate," said Bensouda.
"Many of these victims have died, some killed outright and others by being raped and infected with HIV," she said.
Bemba's defence lawyer, Karim Khan, argued that Bemba's men were bona fide soldiers deployed to defend a democratically elected, neighbouring government.
As such, they were under the command and control of Patasse, and any criminal conduct "must fall squarely on the former head of state of the Central African Republic."
Patasse returned to the CAR only last December after five years' exile in Togo to take part in the country's peace talks.
Bemba sympathised with the lot of the people of the CAR, said Khan, "but the prosecution's difficulty lies in establishing a nexus beteen that suffering and my client.
"This case should not be confirmed."
Another defence lawyer, Nkwebe Liriss, argued that the case was a political plot, claiming some witnesses were historical adversaries of Bemba.
"Many Congolese and many Africans think this is a matter of brushing aside Mr Bemba for the next election."
After an eight-year war, the MLC became a partner and Bemba one of four vice-presidents in a transitional DR Congo government ahead of 2006 elections.
He was defeated for the presidency by Joseph Kabila.
He led opposition to Kabila, which turned violent when government forces tried to disarm his private militia in clashes that killed 300 in March 2007, and forced Bemba into exile.
The court will rule on whether the trial should go ahead within 60 days.
In Paris, the International Federation for Human Rights welcomed the proceedings and in a statement Monday called on the ICC to pursue other senior figures implicated in the atrocities.