An alleged former leader of the janjaweed militia in Sudan’s Darfur region has pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, went on trial Tuesday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he faces 31 counts of crimes that include persecution, pillaging, murder and rape.

Abd-Al-Rahman allegedly commanded pro-government militia forces that attacked and burned down villages in Darfur between August 2003 and March 2004, as then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attempted to stamp out a regional rebellion.

“The trial started with the reading of charges against Mr. Abd-Al-Rahman. The chamber was satisfied that the accused understood the nature of the charges. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges,” ICC spokesperson Fadi El-Abdallah told VOA on Tuesday.

Abd-Al-Rahman is the first Darfur war crimes suspect to go on trial at the ICC. The United Nations estimates the conflict killed more than 300,000 people and displaced more than 2.5 million from their homes.

The lack of justice for crimes and atrocities committed in Darfur nearly two decades ago remains at the root of Sudan’s instability today, according to John Prendergast, co-founder of the Sentry, an organization that focuses on war crimes and war-linked illicit finances.

“The militia in which Kushayb was a leader committed genocidal crimes, and until this moment has been subject to almost no accountability. It’s no surprise, then, that Sudan continues to be marked by dictatorship, kleptocracy, and serious human rights abuses,” Prendergast said in a statement.

The trial against Abd-Al-Rahman may take several months before a verdict is reached, ICC’s Abdallah told South Sudan in Focus, noting that “Taking into account the nature of the charges and the amount of evidence that will have to be presented to the judges for them to be able to decide whether or not there’s a reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused.”

Abd-Al-Rahman was first indicted in 2007. He surrendered himself to the authorities in the Central African Republic in 2020, a year after Bashir was ousted from power in Sudan. He was transferred to the Hague and indicted in 2021.

His trial is a chance to begin to create legal accountability for the commission of horrific crimes, Prendergast said.

“This case has ramifications beyond one man’s guilt. It can help lay the groundwork for justice on behalf of Darfur’s victims and survivors,” he said.

Yagoub Ahmed, an internally displaced person (IDP) and camp leader at the Kalma Camp in West Darfur state, told South Sudan in Focus that the ICC trial gives IDPs and refugees hope that Abd-Al-Rahman will be held responsible for his alleged deeds.

“When justice is served, nobody will try to take the law into his own hands. This has given us hope that justice will finally be served. We have trust in the ICC, and we have been following up with them since day one,” Ahmed said.

Hanan Hassan Khatir, who is a displaced person in the Kalma Camp and whose husband was killed in Darfur in 2003, told South Sudan in Focus she is happy to see Abd-Al-Rahman in the Hague courtroom.

“I don’t believe my ears that such a trial would have been carried out, but today I am excited that Ali Kushayb has finally been tried in the court of law. This man has committed a lot of mass killing, ethnic cleansing. Some of us have been raped publicly in front of our fathers and husbands. Our hope is that all others involved in committing crimes against our people in Darfur should be taken to ICC,” Khatir told VOA.

Although trying Abd-Al-Rahman in the ICC is a big step forward, all alleged perpetrators should be put on trial for crimes committed against civilians, she said.

Former President Bashir was indicted by the ICC in 2009 over alleged atrocities committed by his government but remains imprisoned in Khartoum after being found guilty on corruption charges.

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