It is nearly 5,000 miles from the scrub and deserts of south-west Sudan to the urbane, calm capital of the Netherlands, and a journey that Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman never thought he would make.
Eighteen years ago, the 65-year-old was a “feared and revered” commander of a brigade of the infamous Janjaweed militia, paramilitaries deployed alongside Sudanese government forces to carry out a scorched-earth campaign against rebels and their communities that the UN says left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.
On Thursday, Abd-al-Rahman, who is also known as Ali Kushayb, will appear before the international criminal court (ICC) to face 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape and torture. If the three judges decide that he is guilty, the man once known among the Janjaweed as “the colonel of colonels” could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Campaigners have described a landmark in the struggle to bring perpetrators of mass killings in sub-Saharan Africa to justice.
Human Rights Watch, the global campaign group, said: “This trial is the first time a leader will be held to account for serious crimes allegedly committed in Darfur, albeit 18 years after the crimes began. [It] … is also the first by the ICC on crimes committed by state forces and allied militias in Darfur, and shows that those who commit crimes can still face justice, even over a decade later.”
The trial comes at a difficult time in Sudan, where a civilian-led transition to democracy that followed the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 was derailed by a military coup in October. A humanitarian crisis is unfurling across swaths of the country as inflation touches more than 250% annually.
Since taking power, Sudan’s new rulers have snuffed any hopes that democracy might take hold after decades of dictatorship. Repeated demonstrations against military rule have been broken up with teargas and live fire, with at least 93 deaths. On Thursday a 23-year-old protester was shot in the chest as thousands marched towards the presidential palace in central Khartoum before dispersing amid teargas and bullets.
Some protesters carried signs reading “April 6”, referring to further protests planned this week to mark the anniversary of the largest demonstrations against al-Bashir three years ago.
“There is a very strong sentiment about rejecting military rule but the military is completely refusing to release its grip on power. There is a zero-sum mentality. No one is willing to negotiate or compromise,” said Maram Mahdi, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
Abd-al-Rahman has been in the ICC’s custody since June 2020, when he gave himself up in a remote corner of northern Central African Republic, near the country’s border with Sudan. He had fled Sudan following the fall of Bashir to avoid trial on charges of murder, rape and other serious offences that carry a death penalty there.
The then chief ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said Abd-al-Rahman’s surrender and transfer into the court’s custody nearly two decades after the Darfur conflict began was “a powerful and sombre reminder that the victims of atrocity crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan have waited too long to see justice done”.
At subsequent pre-trial hearings last year Bensouda said she would show that he had led attacks on towns and villages and was implicated in more than 300 murders and raids that forced 40,000 mainly ethnic Fur civilians from their homes.
“The evidence shows that Mr Abd-al-Rahman was a knowing, willing and energetic perpetrator of these crimes,” Bensouda told the hearing.
Abd-al-Rahman did not respond in detail to any of the allegations against him but told the court: “What I heard does not apply to me.”
Though Sudan is not a party to the ICC, a UN resolution requires the government to cooperate with the court. But the political turmoil means the chances of bringing further fugitives sought by the ICC to The Hague are slim.
One is the former dictator Bashir, who is wanted on charges of genocide.
Two other suspects are senior figures from al-Bashir’s rule: Abdel-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, interior and defence minister during much of the conflict, and Ahmed Haroun, a security chief at the time and later the leader of al-Bashir’s ruling party. Haroun is believed to be in custody in Sudan, but the whereabouts of Hussein are unknown.
Sudan’s transitional government, which took office in 2019 after Bashir fell, promised to cooperate and approved the transfer of the three wanted men to the ICC.
However, many of those now occupying positions of power are themselves implicated in the horrific violence in the restive region. Thousands of veterans of the Janjaweed militia have joined the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Gen Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, who is now the de facto deputy leader of Sudan and seen by many as the most influential man in the country.
“The signals at the moment point much more to obstruction [of the ICC] than continued cooperation,” said Mahdi.