An alleged former commander of the notorious Janjaweed militia will face the International Criminal Court this week in the first trial for war crimes in Darfur – nearly two decades after the atrocities began.
The trial in The Hague, set to begin on Tuesday, has been hailed as a long-awaited milestone for victims of the genocidal scorched-earth campaign in the western Sudan region. But the huge delays in the case are also a warning sign for Western governments that are now seeking to use the same court against Russian perpetrators in Ukraine.
The defendant is Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb. He faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including murder, rape, torture and pillaging – for his alleged role in the violence that killed more than 300,000 people and left 2.7 million homeless during a government crackdown on rebels in Darfur.
He is accused of leading the Janjaweed in attacks that killed hundreds of people in towns and villages in Darfur in 2003 and 2004, when the militia was working with Sudanese government forces in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against civilians from groups that were seen as rebellious.
Mr. Abd-al-Rahman has denied the charges.
“In the face of steep odds and no other credible options, the ICC is serving as the crucial court of last resort for Darfuris,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“For all these years, those implicated in serious crimes and other abuses in Darfur and Sudan have largely suffered no consequences – and in some instances have even been rewarded,” Ms. Keppler said.
“Would-be abusers should take note that they can end up in court, even if it is slow going.”
Three other former Sudanese officials and a former rebel leader are still wanted on war-crimes charges in The Hague. Among them is former president Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide and other crimes. He is currently in prison in Khartoum on separate domestic charges, and Sudanese authorities have not yet agreed to send him to The Hague.
The Darfur trial begins at a time when 41 governments, including Canada, have asked the ICC to investigate suspected Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. Canada is also sending a team of RCMP investigators to The Hague to gather evidence on the issue. The ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan has said there are grounds for an investigation.
The much-delayed Darfur prosecution, however, is a warning that such cases can lose momentum when they fade from the global spotlight.
“I think the ICC and supporters of global justice shouldn’t take for granted that the current support for the court’s work in Ukraine will last indefinitely,” said Mark Kersten, a Canadian expert on international justice.
He added that the United Nations Security Council had referred the Darfur crimes to the ICC in 2005, when there was strong international support for global justice.
“And then they did almost nothing for 20 years. Atrocities continued and al-Bashir gallivanted to capitals around the world, including those of ICC member states.”
Even the imprisonment of Mr. al-Bashir today is a result of an uprising against his regime by the Sudanese people, who marched through the streets for months, Mr. Kersten noted. He suggests any hope of justice for war crimes in Ukraine will depend on events in Ukraine itself, rather than in Western capitals.
Mr. al-Bashir gained a better chance of avoiding The Hague after a military coup in Sudan last October, which allowed some of his allies to regain power. Pro-democracy protesters have continued to march in the streets of Khartoum, demanding civilian rule.
Sudan is not a party to the ICC, but it is required to co-operate with the court because the case was referred to the court by the UN Security Council.
Mr. Abd-al-Rahman, who evaded justice for 13 years, finally surrendered in 2020 in Central African Republic, where he had been hiding.
In the Janjaweed militia during the Darfur atrocities, he had been “feared and revered” as the “colonel of colonels,” according to Fatou Bensouda, the former ICC chief prosecutor.
In a speech to the court when the charges were confirmed last year, Ms. Bensouda described Mr. Abd-al-Rahman as a “knowing, willing and energetic perpetrator” of war crimes in Darfur, including cold-blooded executions and the destruction of entire villages.
“He played a crucial role, leading attacks, committing murders and ordering other murders,” she said.
The Janjaweed also used rape as a weapon to terrorize and humiliate women in Darfur, she said.
“The pain inflicted on the victims of these crimes persists. … Many inhabitants of these targeted villages remain in camps for internally displaced persons and refugees to this day.”
The court has authorized 142 victims of the Darfur crimes to participate in the trial, through their legal representatives.
At a time of impunity for such crimes in Sudan, the trial in The Hague is “an important step forward in efforts to provide acknowledgment and some form of justice for victims of serious international crimes in Darfur,” said Emma DiNapoli, legal officer at REDRESS, an organization that pursues legal claims on behalf of torture survivors.
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