THE HAGUE (Reuters) - International Criminal Court prosecutors accused former Congolese rebel warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba of ordering mass rape to terrorise civilians at a hearing on Monday to decide whether he will face trial.
Bemba, 46, faces three counts of crimes against humanity and five counts of war crimes, and is the highest-profile suspect to date brought before the world's first permanent war crimes court, set up in 2002.
Bemba is accused of leading rebels from Democratic Republic of Congo in a campaign of torture, rape and murder in neighbouring Central African Republic. He was arrested in Belgium last May.
The hearing on Monday was to decide whether there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial. Bemba denies the charges.
The charges focus on the period between 2002 and 2003 when Ange-Felix Patasse, president of the Central African Republic at the time, asked Bemba's Congolese Liberation Movement to put down coup attempts in his country.
"Bemba's men went from house to house, pillaging and raping mothers, wives and daughters," said prosecutor Petra Kneuer.
Bemba's troops were instructed to "traumatise and terrorise" the population to prevent them from supporting any resistance against Patasse, the prosecution said.
"To do this, he (Bemba) chose rape as his main method," Kneuer said.
A representative of victims described in detail how a district chief in the capital of Bangui was raped for four hours in front of his wife and children before troops turned to them.
Defence lawyer Karim Asad Ahmad Khan rejected the prosecution's claims against Bemba, arguing that he cannot be held responsible for crimes committed by his troops because they were under the "command and control" of Patasse's government.
"Uniforms, food and money were all provided to MLC troops, not by authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not by Mr. Bemba, ... but by the head of state of the Central African Republic," Khan said, adding the prosecution "failed to establish intent and knowledge."
After the four-day pretrial confirmation of charges hearing, the three-judge panel led by Ekaterina Trendafilova has 60 days to decide whether to go forward with the trial.
Bemba, who served as a vice-president to Joseph Kabila in the post-war transition after Congo's 1998-2003 war, is being held at a detention centre near The Hague.
Bemba fled into exile in Portugal in 2007, saying he feared for his life in Congo. His fighters had battled in the streets of Kinshasa with Kabila's presidential guards in clashes that killed several hundred.
Bemba, appearing in court in a navy suit and blue tie, occasionally took notes and passed messages to defence lawyers sitting nearby as he chewed gum.
He joins former Congolese militia Leader Thomas Lubanga and two other alleged Congolese warlords also indicted by the ICC. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is being held in the same detention centre but tried by the separate U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Last month, Central African Republic's President Francois Bozize agreed at talks to negotiate with rebel and opposition leaders on a consensus government. Patasse, ousted by Bozize in a 2003 coup, was among those who took part in the discussion.