THE HAGUE, Netherlands—A Congo militia leader known as The Terminator pleaded innocent Wednesday to 18 charges, including murder, rape and sexual slavery, as his long-awaited trial started at the International Criminal Court.
Bosco Ntaganda, who for years was a symbol of impunity in Africa before turning himself in to the court in 2013 as his powerbase crumbled, looked on impassively as the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, called him a "notorious and powerful" military leader who commanded troops who slaughtered hundreds of civilians in the resource-rich Ituri region of eastern Congo in 2002 and 2003.
Prosecutors plan to call more than 80 witnesses, including military insiders and former child soldiers, at the trial that is expected to last for months. Former child soldiers also are expected to testify. Ntaganda faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
Bensouda told judges that one of her witnesses had to pick through scores of bodies in a field of banana trees to find the bodies of his wife and four children, allegedly killed by Ntaganda's troops in the armed wing of the Union of Congolese Patriots.
First the witness found his son, a toddler, Bensouda said. He had been disemboweled and his throat slit. His wife, lying nearby, had similar injuries. His 7-month-old daughter's head had been "punctured" and her throat slit, the prosecutor added.
"Finally, he saw the bodies of his two remaining children," Bensouda said. "They had suffered the same fate."
Bensouda said that Ntaganda's forces enlisted child soldiers, boys and girls, sent the boys into combat and used the girls as sex slaves.
The trial also is expected to highlight the widespread plundering of gold and minerals by rebels in eastern Congo. Bensouda said Ntaganda exploited the region's brutal ethnic conflict to enrich himself.
Ntaganda is expected to make a brief statement to judges later this week. The first witness is due to be called on Sept. 15.