The lawyer for a Congolese ex-warlord accused of recruiting child soldiers told judges Wednesday his client was like a father to his troops and that his nickname "Terminator" was undeserved.
Bosco Ntaganda is accused of overseeing massacres of civilians by his rebel army in the Ituri region of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 and 2003.
After two days of closing arguments by the prosecution, Ntaganda's lawyer Stephane Bourgon took the floor on Wednesday at the former commander's war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court.
Bourgon blamed what he called unfounded online rumours for Ntaganda's bloody reputation. He said the defence would make arguments "based on the evidence and not the internet."
"We heard that Bosco Ntaganda was nicknamed The Terminator because he was a notorious violent killer. This is entirely wrong," Bourgon told the court in The Hague.
He addressed evidence that Ntaganda himself had referred to "children" in his forces.
"The army was a family... The 'children' in the family does not mean that they are children," Bourgon told the court.
"They are the members of the army and military commanders take care of their 'children'."
- 'Raping and pillaging' -
Now aged about 44, Ntaganda had a reputation as a charismatic commander with a penchant for cowboy hats and fine dining.
He faces 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity as commander of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
The alleged crimes include murder, rape, sexual slavery and recruiting children under the age of 15.
Prosecutors have told the trial that Ntaganda's fighters slaughtered civilians with machetes and disembowelled pregnant women.
Ntaganda used child soldiers "to participate, under the spell of alcohol and drugs... to kill, rape and pillage the enemy", said Sarah Pellet, a lawyer representing 283 former child soldiers.
"It is time for the victims to put the past behind them and move forward and build their future," she said.
"This will be by way of a guilty verdict."
- 'Soldier, not criminal' -
On Tuesday, prosecutors said Ntaganda was central to planning operations for the Union of Congolese Patriots and its military wing, the FPLC.
They said the FPLC killed at least 800 people as it battled rival militias for control of Ituri.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since violence erupted in the region in 1999, according to rights groups.
Prosecutors showed images of victims who had been disembowelled and had their throats slit.
Ntaganda has been on trial at the ICC since 2015. The soft-spoken defendant has told judges he was a "soldier, not a criminal".
Challenging the prosecution's evidence, Ntaganda's lawyers alluded to the war crimes case of another former Congolese leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba.
He was acquitted on appeal in June in a surprise ruling.
The ICC appeals chamber ruled that Bemba could not be held criminally responsible for rapes and murders committed by his rebel force in the neighbouring Central African Republic.
Final defence arguments are scheduled on Thursday morning, when Ntaganda is expected to make a statement.