A former militia leader in Sudan has denied committing war crimes and crimes against humanity as his landmark hearing opened at the international criminal court.
Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman is accused of leading thousands of pro-government fighters on a systematic campaign of murder, rape and torture during the height of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan between 2003 and 2004.
The 72 year old is alleged to have been a “feared and revered” commander of the infamous Janjaweed militia deployed alongside Sudanese government forces to carry out a brutal counter-insurgency campaign following a rebellion against Khartoum by some local communities.
The conflict left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million, according to the UN.
“I am innocent of all of these charges,” Al-Rahman, who faces life imprisonment, told judges The Hague after the charges were read out at the start of his case on Tuesday.
The trial is the first at the international criminal court to deal with Sudan’s Darfur conflict and shows that no impunity exists for even crimes committed nearly two decades ago, campaigners have said.
“[Tuesday] is a momentous day for victims and survivors in Darfur who never stopped fighting to see the day the cycle of impunity is broken,” Sudanese human rights lawyer Mossaad Mohamed Ali of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies said.
Prosecutors allege that al-Rahman was a “a willing and knowing participant in crimes” and “one of the key senior janjaweed militia leaders” who worked “hand-in-glove” with the Sudanese government in effort to crush rebels in the Darfur.
“You will see that he took pride in the power that he thought he exerted and the authority that he had … and … strange glee in a feared reputation. You’ll hear evidence … that his forces and himself rampaged across different parts of Darfur,” Khan said.
The charges detail attacks led by Al-Rahman across a vast area which resulted in “a large number of victims, including thousands of civilians forcibly displaced, hundreds murdered and many raped”.
Witness statements collected by prosecutors detail how al-Rahman killed people with an axe and told his men to leave no survivors from raids. They describe civilians shot as they fled raids, a baby thrown in the air, women raped in front of family members and villages burned to force inhabitants into the desert.
Al-Rahman voluntarily surrendered to The Hague-based court in June 2020 to avoid prosecution in Sudan, where he faced the death penalty if convicted.
During earlier court appearances he and his lawyer argued that he was the victim of mistaken identity and that he was not educated enough to understand the orders he carried out could result in war crimes.
The then ruler of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who ordered the campaign of violence in Darfur, has been in prison in Khartoum since his fall from power in 2019 and faces ICC charges of genocide related to the conflict.
Two other suspects sought by the ICC are Abdel-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, interior and defence minister at the time of the worst of the violence, and Ahmed Haroun, a former security chief who was the leader of al-Bashir’s ruling party. Haroun is believed to be in custody in Sudan, but the whereabouts of Hussein are unknown.
Sudan’s transitional government, which took office in 2019 after Bashir fell, approved the transfer of the three wanted men to the ICC as part of a broader move towards democracy and reintegration into the world community.
However, following a military takeover last year, many of those now occupying positions of power in Sudan are themselves implicated in the violence in Darfur and are unlikely to handover the fugitives, analysts believe.
Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said that “in the face of steep odds and no other credible options, the ICC is serving as the crucial court of last resort for Darfuris” and called on Sudanese authorities to send other Darfur suspects, including al-Bashir to the ICC to face justice.
The trial comes amid a surge in what humanitarian groups say is intercommunal violence in Darfur since the end of the United Nations and African Union mission there.
Decades after the worst of the fighting, 1.6 million people are still internally displaced in the restive region, the UN estimates.