** FILE ** In this Nov. 6, 2008 file photo, Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is surrounded by soldiers at his base in Tebero, north of Goma, eastern Congo. In a startling turn against its former ally, Rwanda has arrested Congo rebel leader Laurent Nkunda after he fled a joint operation launched by the armies of the two nations, a Congolese military spokesman said Friday, Jan. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo, File)
THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- A Congolese warlord pleaded not guilty to recruiting child soldiers and sending them to fight and die in ethnic battles as the International Criminal Court began its historic first trial Monday.
The trial of Thomas Lubanga has been hailed as a legal landmark by human rights activists because it is the first international criminal prosecution to focus solely on child soldiers.
Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Lubanga showed no emotion as his French lawyer, Catherine Mabille, said he pleaded not guilty to using children under age 15 as soldiers in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots political party in 2002-03.
Lubanga's militia "recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape. The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told a three-judge panel in his opening statement. "They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did."
Moreno-Ocampo showed judges video of Lubanga at a training camp. The footage featured young men and children, some dressed in military fatigues, others in T-shirts and shorts. Another video showed a pickup full of heavily armed bodyguards, including at least two who appeared to be children, following Lubanga's vehicle.
The prosecutor said children were abducted on the way to school or from sports fields. They were beaten and killed during training. Young girls were taken as "wives" by commanders.
"As soon as the girls' breasts started to grow, Thomas Lubanga's commanders could select them as their wives," he said. "Wives is the wrong word. They were sexual slaves."
Lubanga, a 48-year-old psychology graduate, claims he was a patriot fighting to prevent rebels and foreign fighters from plundering the vast mineral wealth of Congo's eastern Ituri region.
The United Nations estimates that up to 250,000 child soldiers are still fighting in more than a dozen countries around the world.
"This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.
Lubanga was arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 and flown to The Hague a year later. He is one of only four suspects in the court's custody - all of them Congolese.
The trial opened as other judges at the court, which started work six years ago, are close to deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide in Darfur province.
Originally slated to begin last June, Lubanga's trial was held up by a dispute between judges and prosecutors over confidential evidence.
The United Nations and non-governmental groups provided more than 200 pieces of evidence - some of which prosecutors said might help Lubanga clear his name - on condition they not be shown to defense lawyers or even to the judges in the case.
That raised fears Lubanga might be unable to get a fair trial. It took months of wrangling before judges and Lubanga's lawyers were granted access to the evidence.
The trial also is the first international prosecution to feature the participation of victims. A total of 93 victims are being represented by eight lawyers and can apply for reparations.
Prosecutors plan to call 34 witnesses and hope to wrap up their case against Lubanga in a few months.
Nine witnesses will be former child soldiers who will recount the horror of their military service, Moreno-Ocampo said.
"They will come to confront past crimes and present prejudices, in particular within their communities," he said. "It takes courage."