Congolese war crimes suspect Bosco Ntaganda made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court on Tuesday, telling a judge he was innocent of charges ranging from murder and rape to using child soldiers.
The man known as "The Terminator" appeared with a shaven head, thin moustache and wearing a black suit and dark blue tie after arriving in The Hague on Friday following his surprise surrender in Rwanda.
The first ever suspect to voluntarily give himself up to the ICC, Ntaganda is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed a decade ago when he was a warlord in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
He initially seemed slightly bewildered but after a court orderly pointed to a set of headphones he sat down, listened intently and occasionally made notes.
"My name is Bosco Ntaganda, I only have the two names, the names given to me by my parents," he said when presiding judge Ekaterina Trendafilova asked him to identify himself.
Ntaganda said although he understood limited French, he preferred to be tried in central African language Kinyarwanda, which he speaks fluently.
"As you know, I was a soldier in the Congo," the towering Ntaganda said through an interpreter. "I was born in Rwanda but I grew up in the Congo. I am Congolese."
"I was informed of these crimes but I plead not guilty," Ntaganda said before Trendafilova cut him short.
The judge set September 23 as the date for a hearing to confirm the charges against Ntaganda, who was allegedly involved in the murder a decade ago of at least 800 people in villages in the mineral-rich region of Ituri in northeastern DR Congo.
At that hearing, prosecutors must persuade the judges they have enough evidence to take him to trial.
Ntaganda reportedly walked into the US embassy in Kigali and asked to be sent to the ICC, possibly fearing for his life as a fugitive from former comrades.
Tuesday's brief hearing was to verify Ntaganda's identity, read the alleged crimes and his rights under the court's founding document, the Rome Statute.
Hassane Bel Lakhdar, his Paris-based lawyer who was appointed by the court, said Ntaganda "intended to file an application for temporary release, but it will not be today".
Set up just over a decade ago, the ICC is the world's only permanent criminal court to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Ntaganda faces seven war crimes counts and three counts of crimes against humanity: they include murder, rape and using child soldiers in his rebel army as well as keeping women as sex-slaves between September 2002 and September 2003.
Victims, as well as Congolese citizens attending Tuesday's hearing, welcomed Ntaganda's appearance.
"Now he cannot come back to where I live and try to abduct me from school and send me off to war," Human Rights Watch quoted an unidentified 16-year-old Congolese boy as saying who was allegedly taken by rebel troops loyal to Ntaganda last year.
"The Congolese people are very happy with Ntaganda's detention," 36-year-old Congolese citizen Dede Mukadi told AFP.
"It's a great day for the Congolese people, a victory," said Mukadi.
Ntaganda was taken into custody in Kigali and flown to the Netherlands Friday, since when he has been held at the ICC detention unit in The Hague's seaside suburb of Scheveningen.
Born in 1973, Ntaganda is the fifth African in ICC custody and the court first issued an arrest warrant against him in 2006.
Until his unexpected appearance in Kigali last week, he had been "flaunting his impunity like a medal of honour while engaging in ruthless human rights abuses," said HRW senior Africa researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg.
Once a top commander of the DR Congo's M23 rebels, the charismatic Ntaganda is believed to have crossed into Rwanda along with several hundred fighters after they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a rival rebel faction.
Ntaganda is believed to have been instrumental in the M23 mutiny in April last year after the collapse of a peace deal under which rebels were to be integrated into the regular army.