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Renewed conflict in Darfur complicates trial on long-ago war crimes

The proceedings are the first at the International Criminal Court since the U.N. Security Council called for an investigation on the situation in Darfur over 15 years ago.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — There are 600 victims of a widespread conflict in Sudan participating in the trial of a former Janjaweed militia leader, but their lawyer announced in court Monday that none will testify in the proceedings because of how unsafe it is for them to travel. 

“I have no hope,” Natalie von Wistinghausen, the counsel for victims in the case, told the International Criminal Court, quoting what she was told by one of the victims she who was scheduled to testify this week. 

As von Wistinghausen described the dire situation in Sudan, the defendant wore a gray suit and took notes. Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, pleaded not guilty just over a year ago to 31 counts of murder, pillaging, rape and torture in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Prosecutors say the 74-year-old helped to recruit and organize for the Janjaweed, which engaged in an ethnic cleansing program and specifically directed attacks against four villages — Kodoom, Bindisi, Mukjar and Deleig — between 2003 and 2004.

Two decades later, however, Sudan is again the center of bloodshed. The State Department estimates that 840,000 people have been displaced within Sudan, and another 250,000 have fled the country since fighting broke out some six weeks ago between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary. At least 883 civilians have been killed, but the number is likely much higher.

While the capital of Khartoum, a city of nearly 700,000 people before the conflict, has seen some of the heaviest fighting, the battle has also spread to Darfur, where tribal militias have reportedly joined the war.

“History sadly seems to be repeating itself,” von Wistinghausen told the court Monday, highlighting stories of several victims who cannot leave their homes or refugee camps to share their experiences with the court. 

Abd-Al-Rahman is on trial over the fighting that erupted in Darfur in 2003 when ethnic Africans rebelled against Khartoum's Arab-led government. Then-President Omar al-Bashir responded by sending the Janjaweed, a group of mostly Arab nomads, known for riding horses or camels, to put down the uprising. 

Once the Sudanese toppled al-Bashir's 30-year regime, the military and the Rapid Support Forces shared power with civilian leaders in a transitional government for two years before ousting the civilians. Though Western governments brokered an agreement to transition the African nation to a civilian government this past spring, it unraveled at the eleventh hour over the proposed integration of the paramilitary into the army.

Abd-Al-Rahman meanwhile surrendered to authorities in June 2020 and has been in ICC custody ever since. 

Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute, which created The Hague-based court in 2002. After the United Nations Security Council referred the matter to the ICC in 2005, however, Sudan became compelled to cooperate with the investigation. It was the first time the Security Council had used this power, but Khartoum has worked only with the court intermittently. 

Abd-Al-Rahman is the fourth person to appear before the ICC on charges related to the Sudanese conflict. Charges against one man, Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, were not confirmed in 2010. Charges were confirmed against two other men, Saleh Mohammed Jerbom, who was killed in the conflict in 2013 and Abdallah Banda Abakaer Nourain, who voluntarily appeared before the court in 2010, but is now missing. 

The court has also issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir, the country’s ex-president. While the Sudanese government had said that it would hand him over to the ICC earlier this year, no timeline for that development has been set. 

Von Wistinghausen noted that Al-Bashir was imprisoned in Sudan after a corruption conviction but that his whereabouts are unclear after both the ex-head of state and two other men with outstanding ICC warrants — Ahmad Harun and Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein — were released from custody. 

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Categories / Criminal, International, Trials

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