Murder, rape, torture: Court hears Darfur atrocities case

FILE – In this Tuesday Aug. 28, 2018 file photo, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. The International Criminal Court Prosecutor opened a hearing Monday, May 24, 2021 of evidence against an alleged leader of a notorious militia blamed for atrocities in Darfur, calling him a “willing and energetic” perpetrator of crimes in the conflict-torn region of Sudan in 2003-2004. Fatou Bensouda was addressing judges at the start of the first presentation at the global court of evidence against a suspect charged with involvement in crimes by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. (Bas Czerwinski/Pool file via AP, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An alleged leader of a notorious militia blamed for atrocities in the Darfur conflict oversaw the summary execution of a group of about 100 captured men and boys in 2004, a prosecutor said Monday at the opening of a pretrial hearing at the International Criminal Court.

Pubudu Sachithanandan was speaking at the first presentation at the global court of evidence against a suspect charged with involvement in crimes by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur in 2003 and 2004.

Earlier, the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she felt privileged to be in court “when finally one of the suspects in the Darfur situation is before this court to face independent and impartial justice.”

Bensouda, whose nine-year term in office ends next month, paid tribute to “the courage, patience and resilience of the Darfur victims who have waited for so long for this day to arrive.”

Ali Mohammed Ali Abdul Rahman Ali, known as Ali Kushayb, is charged with a total of 31 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes dating back to the deadly Darfur conflict in 2003 and 2004 including murder, rape, torture and persecution.

He has not entered a plea to the charges but at a hearing last year he told judges the allegations were “untrue.” His lawyer, Cyril Laucci, disputes the court’s jurisdiction in the case.

Bensouda told judges that Abdul Rahman “was a knowing, willing and energetic perpetrator of these crimes. He played a crucial role leading attacks, committing murders and ordering other murders.”

She said Janjaweed forces used rape as a weapon to terrorize and humiliate women. She recounted the story of a woman captured by a Janjaweed fighter and raped at knife point. Bensouda told judges that the victim, who is also a witness in the case, said: “I screamed and another … Janjaweed came with a sword, put it in my mouth and said he would cut me if I screamed.”

Outlining witness testimony in the mistreatment and execution of around 100 men and boys who were rounded up and imprisoned at a police station in the town of Mukjar early in 2004, Sachithanandan said Abdul Rahman played a key role.

He hit detainees with an ax, spoke to government officials about what to do with the captives, who included prominent community leaders from the Fur tribal group, and ultimately ordered them shot.

After the massacre of one group, Adbul Rahman told gunmen: “Repeat, repeat for these people. Maybe there are some that you have missed. Repeat for these people,” Sachithanandan said, citing witness testimony.

Monday’s hearing is not a trial. Instead, it is intended to establish whether evidence against Abdul Rahman is strong enough to merit putting him on trial at the global court. A decision is expected later this year.

The conflict in Darfur broke out when rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

The government of now-deposed President Omar al-Bashir’s government responded with a scorched-earth campaign of aerial bombings and unleashed Janjaweed militias, who are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.

Al-Bashir has been charged with crimes including genocide for masterminding the operation. He has been in jail in Khartoum since his 2019 ouster and faces several trials in Sudanese courts related to his three decades of strongman rule.

Bensouda visited Khartoum last year to discuss cooperation in efforts to bring to justice suspects charged by the Hague-based court with involvement in Darfur atrocities. She said Monday she will visit again next week, including her first trip to Darfur.

Human Rights Watch welcomed Monday’s hearing as an important step toward justice for victims, but the group’s associate international justice director Elise Keppler added that “the absence of al-Bashir and the three other Darfur suspects at the ICC is a major shortcoming that the Sudanese authorities should promptly address.”

Abdul Rahman surrendered to authorities in a remote corner of northern Central African Republic, near the country’s border with Sudan, more than 13 years after the ICC first issued an international arrest warrant for him.

A group of victims in the case is being represented in the case by lawyer Amal Clooney, who joined the hearing by video link.

Adam Regal, a spokesman for General Coordination for Refugee and Displaced Camps in Darfur, said they would hire lawyers to represent refugees and displaced people before the court. He said they would work with the court to provide possible evidence and help survivors of the atrocities reach the court.

He criticized the transitional government for not yet handing over al-Bashir and other wanted officials.

“This is a legal process not a political one,” he said. “It is the right of the victims and displaced people to see justice achieved.”

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Associated Press writer Samy Magdy contributed to this story from Cairo.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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