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Under a scorching sun on a March morning in 2004, more than 100 arrested villagers lay face-down on the ground outside a police station in Darfur. Many were blindfolded, with their hands tied.

After several hours, a Sudanese man known as Commander Ali arrived and the guards saluted him. Witnesses described how he spoke on a satellite phone, then began beating the villagers and even walking on their backs. Within hours, most of the prisoners were packed into cars and driven away to be killed.

Militia leader Ali Kushayb, allegedly the man known as Commander Ali, is due to appear in a courtroom in The Hague on Monday. More than 16 years after the massacre of the Darfur villagers, the International Criminal Court believes it has found the man who orchestrated it.

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Mr. Kushayb’s unexpected arrest in the Central African Republic last week, for that massacre and dozens of other alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, is a huge step in the court’s campaign to bring justice to the families of the estimated 300,000 people killed in Darfur, a region of Sudan where the pro-government Janjaweed militia has assisted the Sudanese military in a brutal crackdown on rebel forces and their suspected supporters.

The court has indicted other suspects for Darfur crimes – including former Sudan president Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of masterminding a genocide to Darfur – but it has not yet succeeded in bringing any of the others to trial, despite promises of co-operation by the government that replaced Mr. al-Bashir after he was ousted in a wave of street protests last year.

The court has been hunting for Mr. Kushayb for 13 years, accusing him of commanding thousands of Janjaweed militia members in a campaign of murder and rape against rebels and civilians in Darfur. It issued a second arrest warrant in 2018 in connection with the 2004 massacre, but the warrant was kept confidential until last week.

Mr. Kushayb will appear in The Hague at a time of unprecedented tensions between the ICC and its opponents. At a meeting this week, the court’s member states – including Canada – will be asked to consider action to defend the court from U.S. sanctions.

Progress in the Darfur prosecutions, after more than a decade of delays, could be a crucial asset for the international court as it tries to fend off the latest attack by U.S. President Donald Trump. Justice for Darfur has been a popular cause in the United States, endorsed by Hollywood celebrities such as George Clooney and a range of activist groups and human-rights organizations.

The Hague-based court, often accused of bias and ineffectiveness in its investigations of war crimes around the world, needs to show that it can convict the perpetrators of atrocities in long-neglected regions such as Darfur, where the court has been filing charges without convictions since 2007.

At the same time, the court has been struggling to show that it can prosecute more than just African warlords. Its failure to prosecute any non-African suspects since its creation in 2002 has led some African politicians to accuse the court of racism.

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The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has disclosed that she found evidence of alleged crimes by U.S. forces and others in Afghanistan and by the Israeli government and others in the Palestinian territories – but those two investigations have provoked a fierce pushback from the U.S. government.

Last Thursday, the Trump administration announced that it will impose sanctions – including asset freezes and travel restrictions – against the ICC officials who are investigating alleged U.S. crimes such as torture and rape in Afghanistan and in foreign detention centres for Afghan detainees.

The White House complained that the court’s investigation is an “overreach” that would violate U.S. sovereignty and threaten its national security. In an earlier retaliation, it revoked Ms. Bensouda’s U.S. entry visa last year.

After the White House announcement, the ICC swiftly issued its own statement, vowing to remain “unwavering” in its investigations. It promised to “stand firmly” by the court’s staff and officials, despite the sanctions. “These attacks constitute an escalation and an unacceptable attempt to interfere with the rule of law and the court’s judicial proceedings,” it said.

The court said it profoundly regretted the “coercive actions” by the U.S. “An attack on the ICC also represents an attack against the interests of victims of atrocity crimes, for many of whom the court represents the last hope for justice,” it said.

The Assembly of States Parties, the court’s oversight body with 123 countries as members, has called an emergency meeting this week to consider ways to defend the court.

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The U.S. sanctions are “unprecedented” and “undermine our common endeavour to fight impunity and to ensure accountability for mass atrocities,” said a statement by the assembly’s president, O-Gon Kwon of South Korea.

Senior officials from the Netherlands, the European Union and the United Nations have also expressed concern at the U.S. announcement of sanctions against ICC investigators.

Human Rights Watch said the Trump administration was making a “shameless” attempt to block justice. “Asset freezes and travel bans are for human-rights violators, not those seeking to bring rights violators to justice,” it said. “By targeting the ICC, the Trump administration continues its assault on the global rule of law.”

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