Defence lawyers for former DR Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba opened their case Tuesday before the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"We are starting a new phase," judge Sylvia Steiner told the court based in The Hague. She added: "Today, the defence will commence presenting its evidence in this trial."
Bemba, 49, faces three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for atrocities committed by members of his private army in the neighbouring Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003.
Troops of his Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) are accused of carrying out widespread and systematic attacks against CAR civilians when he sent them into the country in late 2002 to help put down a coup against then CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Lawyers for Bemba, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, argue that his forces were under Central African command when the atrocities were committed.
The first defence witness to take the stand will be retired French general Jacques Seara, a military expert who authored a report on military command structures during the conflict.
Prosecutors closed their case on March 21.
The former rebel leader-turned-politician said he deployed his troops when Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by the former armed forces chief Francois Bozize, who eventually seized power in 2003.
Bemba, who unsuccessfully challenged current DR Congo President Joseph Kabila in polls in 2006, went into exile after government forces routed his private militia in 2007. He was arrested in Brussels in 2008.
Judges have given the defence 230 hours to question the 59 witnesses it intends to call.© ANP/AFP