A Congolese militia leader made his first appearance on Monday before the International Criminal Court, arguing he already had been acquitted of charges linked to the 2003 destruction of a village and the deaths of 200 villagers.
Mathieu Ngudjolo was arrested last week in Kinshasa and turned over to the Hague-based court. The 37-year-old is the third Congolese suspect taken into custody by the world's first permanent war crimes court.
Ngudjolo allegedly led forces of the National Integrationist Front -- including child soldiers -- who attacked the village of Bogoro in the eastern Ituri region of Congo in 2003, the court said.
The rebel fighters murdered 200 people, captured women and girls as sex slaves and locked prisoners in a room full of corpses, prosecutors allege. Ngudjolo faces three charges of crimes against humanity and six of war crimes.
Belgian defense attorney Jean-Pierre Kilenda told the judges the case was inadmissible because Ngudjolo had been tried for the same offenses by a Congolese court and acquitted in June 2004.
"He cannot be tried twice for the same crimes," Kilenda said. "There is nothing left for you but to acknowledge the fact that this case is inadmissible."
Kilenda also said that, should the court decide to continue with the case, it should release Ngudjolo pending his trial, for which no date has been set.
Prosecutors said they would respond to the court in writing, and judges did not comment on Kilenda's claims.
"Obviously, we will be opposing both applications -- admissibility as well as provisional release," deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.
Ngudjolo is the second suspect arrested in connection with the Bogoro attack. Last year, Congolese authorities handed over Germain Katanga, known as Simba, who is accused of leading the Patriotic Resistance force when it attacked Bogoro.
He has not yet entered a plea.
At a closed-door hearing that was scheduled to take place after press time yesterday, prosecutors were to seek to have the two suspects tried together.
Back-to-back wars in Congo from 1998 to 2002 drew in armies from half a dozen neighboring countries.
Sporadic fighting continues in the country's eastern border region, which is divided into zones controlled by rival factions.
At the time of his arrest, Ngudjolo was a colonel in the Congolese national army. Congolese President Joseph Kabila entered a power sharing deal with militia leaders to end the country's civil war and co-opted some of them into the national army.
Asked by the three-judge panel about his conditions of detention, Ngudjolo said he had no complaints, apart from the quality of the Dutch cooking he is served at the court's detention center.
"It doesn't agree with me," Ngudjolo said.