An alleged Janjaweed militia leader on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to dozens of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the first ever trial at the International Criminal Court dealing with Sudan’s Darfur conflict of nearly two decades ago.
Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman is accused of overseeing thousands of pro-government Janjaweed fighters responsible for persecution, murder, rape and torture during the 2003-2004 height of the violence in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
“I am innocent of all of these charges,” the septuagenarian Abd-Al-Rahman told judges after the charges were read out at the start of his case.
Abd-Al-Rahman, whom prosecutors say was also known as Ali Kushayb, voluntarily surrendered to The Hague-based court in June 2020 after 13 years on the run. He has denied the charges.
The trial comes amid an upsurge in what humanitarian groups say is inter-communal violence in Darfur since the end of the United Nations and African Union mission there.
Decades after the worst of the fighting, 1.6 million people are still internally displaced in Darfur, the UN estimates.
Darfur’s conflict first erupted when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan’s government, which responded with a counter-insurgency.
Khartoum mobilized mostly Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, to crush the revolt, unleashing a wave of violence that Washington and some activists said amounted to genocide.
The UN estimates 300,000 people were killed and more than 2 million driven from their homes.
Abd-Al-Rahman has been accused of 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.
During earlier hearings his lawyer argued that the defendant was a victim of mistaken identity and that he was not educated enough to understand the orders he carried out could result in war crimes.
Sudan’s former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is facing ICC charges of orchestrating genocide and other atrocities in Darfur, was deposed in 2019 and remains in prison in Khartoum.