A Sudanese militia leader has denied charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the Darfur conflict in his first appearance before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday.
Ali Kushayb was formally told of the more than 50 charges against him as he appeared by video link from a detention centre in The Hague because of coronavirus measures.
Kushayb, 70, turned himself in earlier this month in the Central African Republic after 13 years on the run stemming from allegations relating to the devastating conflict in the western Sudanese region.
“Yes I was informed of [the charges] but this is untrue … They made me come here and I hope that I will get justice,” said Kushayb, wearing a light grey suit and tie, and speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.
Judge Rosario Salvatore Aitala pointed out that Monday’s hearing was not a trial, only a formality to confirm the identity of Kushayb, who is also known as Ali Muhammad Abdelrahman, and the charges against him.
“This is not the hearing for presenting your defence, you will have opportunities to do that. This is only the hearing for the judge to be satisfied that you have been informed of the charges,” the judge told Kushayb.
A court official took nearly half an hour to read out the list of 53 charges including murdering civilians, destroying and burning villages, rape, pillage and forcible displacement.
The Darfur conflict broke out in 2003 when ethnic African rebels who complained of systematic discrimination took up arms against the government of longtime President Omar al-Bashir.
The state hit back with violence by pro-government Janjaweed fighters in a campaign that saw the ICC accuse al-Bashir of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The United Nations says the conflict killed 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.
According to prosecutors, Kushayb was a top commander of the Janjaweed militias that led attacks on towns and villages, and is implicated in more than 300 murders and the forcing of 40,000 mainly Fur civilians from their homes.
The United States said killings in Darfur amounted to a genocide. The ICC has not accused Kushayb of that crime.
The judge on Monday set a so-called confirmation of charges hearing on December 7 this year. At that hearing, the court will weigh if there is enough evidence to support the prosecution charges and proceed to trial.
Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for three decades, was deposed in April 2019 following months of protests and is also wanted by the ICC.
Kushayb fled to the Central African Republic in February when the new Sudanese government announced its intention to cooperate with the ICC’s investigation.
In Sudan, Gibreel Hassabu, a lawyer at the Khartoum-based Darfur Bar Association, said Kushayb’s arrest was a sign that justice will be delivered to the Darfur people. He added the case could pressure the trinational government to quickly hand over to The Hague al-Bashir and two other suspects wanted by the ICC who have been imprisoned in Khartoum.
“Kushayb’s trial is a starting point to bring justice to the victims. His arrest restored hope that the government could go forward and hand over other wanted including al-Bashir to The Hague,” he said.