A Sudanese militia leader appeared before the International Criminal Court on Monday, after 13 years on the run, to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the bloody conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur from 2003 to 2004.
The expected trial of the militia leader, identified in court documents as Ali Kushayb, is the first to address the destruction of several hundred villages and the mass killings of civilians as Sudan’s armed forces and government-backed militias crushed a rebellion that over the past two decades has taken an estimated 300,000 lives.
Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, called Mr. Kushayb’s detention “pivotal” at the U.N. Security Council last week in discussing the court’s pursuit of justice for victims of the Darfur conflict and stressed the court’s “unwavering” commitment to them.
“There should be no escape from justice for perpetrators of the world’s most serious crimes under international law,” she said.
The developments are a victory of sorts for an international court that has been the target of scorn by the United States — which is not a member of the court — most notably over its efforts to investigate Americans over potential war crimes in Afghanistan. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it “a kangaroo court.”
The militia leader surrendered to the authorities in the Central African Republic last week and asked to be handed over to the International Criminal Court at its office there, more than a decade after the court issued a warrant for his arrest.
His apparent motive, according to Sudan’s public prosecutor, was an attempt to save his life after Sudan issued an arrest warrant for him last year in the wake of the ouster of the country’s longtime ruler, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
The warrant charged him with murder, theft, rape and violence against women. A conviction in Sudan could potentially bring the death penalty, whereas the maximum punishment at the International Criminal Court is a life sentence.
For his initial appearance on Monday at the international court in The Hague, where he arrived last week, he was not brought into the courtroom because of health precautions related to the coronavirus.
Instead, he participated via a video link from the court’s jail, telling the judge that he wanted to be known by his real name, Ali Abd-Al-Rahman and indicating that he was 70 years old.
After the prosecution read out the charges against him — 50 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity — he briefly said, “What I heard does not apply to me.” He also requested a minute of silence “for all the victims,” but the judge refused.
He was not asked to enter any plea during the hourlong procedural hearing.
The case against Mr. Kushayb at the international court focuses on his activities as a leader of the janjaweed militias, whom Mr. al-Bashir’s government recruited to crush a rebel movement in the Darfur region.
The prosecution has accused Mr. Kushayb of commanding thousands of janjaweed in 2003 and 2004, in addition to arming, funding and providing food and other supplies to them.
The prosecution said in its accusation that Mr. Kushayb had “personally participated in some of the attacks against civilians” in several towns “where the killing of civilians, rape, torture and other cruel treatments occurred.”
Court documents say he also coordinated a campaign that involved bombings by the Sudanese air force and attacks by other armed units that joined the militias in carrying out scorched-earth tactics, burning villages and forcing an estimated 2.7 million people to flee. Many still live in refugee camps, including in Darfur and across the border in Chad.
The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Mr. al-Bashir in 2009 and 2010 on charges of genocide and multiple atrocities.
Mr. al-Bashir had traveled abroad despite the warrants from the court, and avoided arrest until he was overthrown in a military coup in 2019. He was convicted of corruption in December.
His ouster reawakened hope in The Hague that he would be sent there for trial. Sudan’s new military-backed government initially remained silent on the issue, but more recently, amid peace talks with Darfur rebels, news reports said that senior military officials planned to hand over Mr. al-Bashir and two other officials wanted by the court.
Ms. Bensouda, who said last week that she had not received direct confirmation of Khartoum’s intentions, has renewed calls for Sudan to hand over Mr. al-Bashir; the former ministers Abdel-Rahim Hussein and Ahmad Harun; and the rebel leader Abdallah Banda.
The arrest of Mr. Kushayb comes against the backdrop of a dispute between the court and the Trump administration, which said last week that court officials who participated in investigating possible war crimes by Americans in Afghanistan would face economic sanctions and travel restrictions, as would their families.
In response to Mr. Pompeo, the court said in a statement that “these attacks constitute an escalation and an unacceptable attempt to interfere with the rule of law and the court’s judicial proceedings.”
It said that “an attack on the I.C.C. also represents an attack against the interests of victims of atrocity crimes, for many of whom the court represents the last hope for justice.”
The exchange came after an attack on the court by Mr. Pompeo in March drew outrage both at the court and in international legal circles. At that time, he stunned lawyers in The Hague when he singled out two senior staff members in the prosecution office and said that they and others were “putting Americans at risk.”
At the hearing on Monday, the judge set the next hearing for Dec. 7 to give the prosecution and defense time to prepare their cases. At that time, the court will decide whether the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed to trial.