WASHINGTON - After more than a decade on the run, alleged Sudanese war criminal Ali Kushayb sat in a courtroom in the Netherlands this week, accused of commanding Janjaweed fighters who raped, tortured and killed civilians in Darfur.
Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), said Kushayb's surrender earlier this month in the Central African Republic and his transfer to face charges in the Hague are signals to war criminals around the world that they cannot hide forever.
"I believe that his transfer is a very clear and unequivocal message that no matter how long it takes, we will not stop, my office will not stop our work, until these alleged perpetrators of the Rome Statute crimes have been brought to justice," Bensouda told VOA via Skype.
Between 2003 and 2004, Kushayb, whose given name is Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, allegedly led thousands of Janjaweed militia members. These fighters conducted what has been called a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the people of the Darfur region. They burned villages, killed thousands and played a role in displacing more than a million people, often with the backing of aerial bombardment by Sudanese government forces.
"They were called the devils on horseback. He led those troops into destroying villages in close coordination with military bombers. This went on for many years," said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. "And he is just one of the most notorious, grievous representations of that very, very sad period of time."
In 2007, the ICC indicted Kushayb on 22 counts of crimes against humanity and 28 war crimes. But for years, he received protection from former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. That ended last year when Bashir was ousted during a popular uprising. In February 2020, Sudan's transitional government announced it would cooperate with the ICC.
"They said no one was above the law," Bensouda said. "The news that impunity would no longer be tolerated was met, as you saw, with widespread support by the Sudanese people, and I believe that accountability for crimes committed in Darfur is now a widely supported proposition in Sudan, that justice and accountability for atrocity crimes is an essential element in building lasting stability."
Kushayb is the first person to see the inside of an ICC courtroom in connection to crimes committed in Darfur. It is unclear what will happen to Bashir, who is in custody in Khartoum and faces domestic charges relating to the killing of demonstrators during the protests. The former Sudanese president is also wanted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. He was the first head of state to face such charges.
"The pending arrest warrants, including for Mr. al-Bashir, remain in effect and they have yet to be executed," Bensouda said. "I have urged the national authorities to honor their commitments to deliver justice for the victims in Darfur and to do so, as I said earlier on, without delay."
'Cycle of violence'
Hudson said the arrest and trial of Kushayb and other alleged war criminals mark an important milestone for the ICC and could have real impacts in Sudan, even among those who are not on trial.
"I think it's a really important opportunity for the ICC to demonstrate not just its efficacy in trying Ali Kushayb, but also one of the things that it touts as a benefit of international justice, which is the healing effect and the deterrent effect of international justice," Hudson said.
"So the idea [is] that trying Kushayb and bringing to light his crimes and delivering justice for his crimes will both help the Darfuris heal and feel some sense of justice being served, but also act as a very powerful potential deterrent to those who hold office in Sudan now specifically in the military and in the rapid support forces, many of whom participated in some of the crimes of Darfur," he said.
As Sudan prepares for elections in 2022, some have feared that the ICC proceedings could reopen old wounds and have a destabilizing effect. Bensouda believes, when victims see justice in a court of law and perpetrators are held accountable, it decreases the likelihood for further violence.
"I believe that peace and justice in Sudan are not incompatible," she said. "The victims in Darfur have waited long enough for accountability and our objective is to play our role within our mandates and means to combat impunity in Sudan. Investigating and prosecuting these crimes can help to deter the commission of future crimes, and in doing so, it can help to break the cycle of violence."