Darfur War Crimes Trial Begins in Hague

They were known as the janjaweed, the armed militiamen who came running on camels and horses at dawn, moving fast to kill and rape, burning huts and leaving yet another village destroyed in the Darfur region of Sudan’s impoverished far west.

Its leader was said to be Ali Kushayb, who human rights groups say was noted for his ruthless efficiency in the government-led campaign to crush a 2003 rebellion in Darfur.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kushayb went on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he is charged with 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including persecution, looting, murder and rape, all of which he denies. .

Mr. Kushayb is the first suspect to stand trial on charges of playing a major role in the bloody campaign that claimed more than 200,000 lives and drove more than two million people from their homes.

His lawyer, Cyril Laucci, has said the court got Kushayb wrong. In court Tuesday, Kushayb was stoic as charges were read. “I am innocent of all these charges,” he said when asked about his guilty plea.

But prosecutors say they have evidence the man on trial is the same man charged in 2007 for his role in more than 300 murders and the expulsion of some 40,000 civilians in 2003 and 2004. They said he recruited, armed and supplied hundreds of militiamen under his command and was the liaison between them and the Sudanese government in the country’s capital, Khartoum.

The start of the trial was a “momentous day”, said Karim Khan, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, who said in his opening statement that millions of Sudanese had waited for justice after experiencing atrocities that left lasting trauma.

Kushayb was not a remote participant, Khan said, but one who killed, ordered and participated in crimes, describing accounts of himself and his men raping women and girls, torturing detainees and executing children. The leader prided himself, Khan said, on having a feared reputation. “There was an unbridled disregard for basic humanity,” he added.

Mr. Kushayb’s arrest in 2020 caught prosecutors by surprise. The court said he had surrendered to local authorities in a remote part of the Central African Republic, where he had settled after leading a troop of violent mercenaries there.

It was not clear if Kushayb knew that the United States had offered a reward for his capture. But questions remain about why, or if, he turned himself in.

The court is seeking other high-ranking players in Darfur’s brutal campaign, notably Sudan’s former military ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir and two of his top associates, including his defense minister. All three have been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

Mr. al-Bashir always flouted his arrest warrant, arguing that the International Criminal Court, which he called a racist representative of the West, had no jurisdiction over him or Sudan, and urged all African countries to withdraw. her. Al-Bashir’s three decades in power ended in 2019, raising hopes that he could be sent to The Hague to stand trial. But those hopes have been dashed after a new military coup last October brought back members of the old guard.

The bloodbath in Darfur in the early 2000s shocked the world. The intense news coverage sparked an outpouring of sympathy and created the international Save Darfur movement. Few people may have known where Darfur was, but action groups released images of the tens of thousands of black Darfurians fleeing the scorched earth campaign of the Sudanese government and its Arab militias, apparently intent on crushing various rebel groups.

A United Nations commission found both government and rebels guilty of atrocities, but said government forces had bombed villages from planes and helicopters and resorted to violence on a much larger scale, committing crimes “no less serious and appalling”. than genocide.”

In 2005, public outcry led the United Nations Security Council, for the first time, to ask the International Criminal Court to open an investigation, and the court issued arrest warrants.

But no arrests were made until Mr. Kushayb’s.

Some lawyers and human rights activists have welcomed the case, even after all the years of delay and with only one suspect in the dock.

“Since the atrocities began in Darfur, there has been near-total impunity, and in some cases, suspected abusers have even been rewarded,” said Elise Keppler, associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The abuses continue to this day in Darfur, no doubt because there is no accountability.”

But the Kushayb case has highlighted the limitations of the scope of the International Criminal Court. For all its ambitions, the founders gave limited powers to the permanent court, whose mandate is to try the worst crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and aggression.

The court relies on the political will and cooperation of a government to allow serious investigations, which require access to police and government files and records, and sometimes to carry out forensic work in prisons and cemeteries. And the court has no police to enforce their arrest warrants.

Karim Khan, who took over as the court’s chief prosecutor last year, joined his predecessor in berating the Security Council for sending the Sudan case to court 17 years ago without providing political muscle or financial aid to back the necessary work. Investigations in Darfur stopped some eight years ago after a prosecutor said all possible means of access were blocked in Sudan.

Still, lawyers familiar with the Kushayb case appear confident it can lead to a conviction because the defendant is accused of having been present in the area where and when the killings occurred and investigators have had access to hundreds of victims in camps. refugees across the border. in Chad. The indictment against Mr. Kushayb says that “it is alleged that he personally participated in some of the attacks on civilians” in at least four cities.

Experts say, however, that it will be more difficult to connect all the necessary dots to hold Mr. al-Bashir, the former president, and his two top lieutenants accountable for their alleged crimes because such a prosecution, especially one carried out with great distance from atrocities, typically requires documents, warrants, insider testimony, interceptions, and other evidence that can be difficult and time-consuming to obtain.

Even if Mr. al-Bashir and his former lieutenants were to arrive in court unexpectedly, it would take time to bring them to trial because their cases were stalled.

Khan, the prosecutor, told the UN Security Council in January that he was satisfied with the case against Kushayb and Abdel Rahim Muhammad Hussein, a former defense minister.

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting.

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