Warning: The following story contains graphic details.
An alleged leader of a Sudanese militia known as the “Devils on Horseback” has taken “strange joy” at his reputation for ruthlessness during the Darfur conflict, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said on Tuesday. the start of the suspect’s trial.
The accused, 72, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, pleaded innocent to 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
‘I reject all these charges,’ he told court in the ICC’s first trial to address atrocities committed by Sudanese government-backed forces in the Darfur region nearly two decades ago .
The trial opened amid global condemnation of the atrocities attributed to Russian forces in the war in Ukraine and is a reminder that international courts can bring alleged perpetrators of crimes to justice, though the painstaking process can be long and slow. Kushayb, for example, was finally arrested in 2020, 13 years after an ICC arrest warrant was first issued.
Prosecutor Karim Khan called the trial “an important moment to try to wake peace from its slumber and try to move it, mobilize it, into action”. He noted that Russia voted in 2005 for a UN Security Council mandate calling for an ICC investigation in Darfur.
Prosecutors say Abd-Al-Rahman was a senior Janjawid militia commander during the Darfur conflict that erupted when rebels from the territory’s Central and Sub-Saharan African ethnic community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of the oppression exercised by the majority Arab government in the capital, Khartoum.
President Omar al-Bashir’s government responded with a campaign of aerial bombardment and scorched earth raids by the Janjaweed, who often attacked at dawn, sweeping villages on horseback or camel.
The campaign included massacres and rapes, torture and persecution. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million driven from their homes in Darfur over the years.
Khan said Abd-Al-Rahman was “a willing and knowing participant in the crimes” and “one of the main leaders of the Janjawid militia” who worked “hand in hand” with the Sudanese government.
“You’ll see he was proud of the power he thought he wielded and the authority he had,” Khan said. “And…strange joy in a dreaded reputation.”
He said the witnesses would speak to the three-judge panel about the attacks, murders and rapes and describe the horrors inflicted on the villages and the lasting consequences of the attacks.
“In my community, a girl who has been raped has no value,” Khan said quoting a Darfuri.
A witness was cited by Khan in his opening statement as having seen a breastfed baby from his deceased mother following an attack.
Prosecutors rejected Abd-Al-Rahman’s defense that they had the wrong person.
“The evidence will show that this is Ali Kushayb in the courtroom, finally facing justice,” lead attorney Julian Nicholls told the court.
Former Sudanese dictator al-Bashir will also be tried by the ICC
Al-Bashir, who has been in prison in Khartoum since being ousted from power in 2019, also faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the Darfur conflict.
Abd-Al-Rahman is suspected of crimes allegedly committed between August 2003 and at least April 2004 in Darfur, including murder, torture, rape, persecution and attacks on civilians.
Khan told judges they would hear many chilling accounts of “dumb” violence from Abd-al-Rahman himself during the trial, which is expected to last several months.
“There are so many examples of abuse, not just using your axe, not just killing people or ordering the execution of children or men, allowing rapes and participating in all the allegations that are charged and that are before you,” he said.
Zuhal Ahmed, a Sudanese-American activist and leader of the Darfur community in Arizona, hailed the trial as “the beginning of victory” for the people of Darfur.
“To see Ali Kushayb in court after all these years is (a) very big victory and we hope he gets the maximum sentence,” she said.
Instability still visible in Sudan
She called for international pressure on the Sudanese military to hand over other suspects wanted by the court, including al-Bashir.
The trial opens amid a recent uptick in violence in Darfur, which has seen deadly clashes between rival tribes in recent months as the country remains mired in a wider crisis following the government’s coup. last year when top generals overthrew a civilian-led government.
Omar Ismail, former acting foreign minister in the transitional government that ruled Sudan after al-Bashir was ousted, welcomed the trial.
“Today justice will be served for the victims and survivors of Darfur! The perpetrators of these heinous crimes must take note. Justice — even if delayed — will prevail,” he tweeted.
At least 45 people were killed last week in the latest fighting between Arab and non-Arab tribes in South Darfur.
Khan said he hoped that at the end of the trial “the first drops of justice will fall on what has so far been a desert of impunity in Darfur”.