A man of Ethiopian descent has denied being responsible for war crimes in his home country in the 1970s, at the start of his trial in a Dutch court.

The 63-year-old suspect, identified in court as Eshetu Alemu, told judges at The Hague District Court on Monday: "You have the wrong person."

Alemu is charged with war crimes including involvement in torturing prisoners to death under the brutal regime of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Goran Sluiter, a lawyer for victims in the case, welcomed the trial, saying that the Dutch commitment to prosecuting crimes from the past even if committed in another country "means that suspects of these crimes are never safe."

Prosecution spokesman Wim de Bruin says Alemu faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.