Congo's former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, rape and pillage at the start of his war crimes trial, in a case that could define a commander's legal responsibility to control his troops.

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Congo's former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, centre back, is seen in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague Monday where he pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, rape and pillage. ((Michael Kooren/Associated Press))

The trial of Bemba, 48, is only the third to get underway at the International Criminal Court in The Hague since it began in 2002. Bemba, who had been seen as a potential presidential candidate in Congo's next election, is the most senior political figure in the court's custody.

"The International Criminal Court's decision will influence the behaviour of thousands of military commanders" around the world, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told the three-judge panel.

Wearing a dark grey suit and blue tie, Bemba sat impassively with his arms crossed in front of him as his lawyer pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.

Prosecutors said Bemba allowed 1,500 members of his personal militia, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, to run amok in Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003 after the country's then-president, Ange-Feliz Patasse, asked for its help in an ultimately unsuccessful fight against rebels led by Congo's former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.

Moreno Ocampo said small gangs of Bemba's troops systematically invaded homes to terrorize civilians, aiming to prevent them joining the rebellion.

"They stole all possessions that could be carried off and raped women, girls, elders regardless of their age. If the civilians resisted the rape or pillaging, they were killed," he said.

'Licence to attack civilians'

The rapes "were crimes of domination and humiliation" targeting women and men in positions of power, he added.

Moreno Ocampo said that Bemba did not explicitly order the atrocities but deliberately turned a blind eye to them, giving troops "licence to attack civilians."

"As superior, Jean-Pierre Bemba is even more responsible than his subordinates," Moreno Ocampo said. "A commander who lets his troops carry out such criminal tactics is hundreds of times more dangerous than any single rapist."

Margot Wallstrom, the UN special representative for sexual violence in conflict, said the trial would help shatter the silence that surrounds mass rape used as a weapon, which she said is normally met with "mass impunity."

Prosecutors plan to call up to 40 witnesses, including more than a dozen rape victims, and expect to take six months to present their evidence.

Activists hope the trial will send a message to fighters and their commanders around the world that those using rape as a weapon will be punished.

Bemba ruled a large part of Congo during that country's 1998-2002 war with support from neighbouring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of Congo's four vice-presidents.

Bemba was arrested in Belgium and transferred to the court in The Hague in July 2008.