BANGUI, Central African Republic -- In a significant breakthrough in the pursuit of justice for crimes in Darfur, Sudanese militia leader Ali Kushayb, who is charged with 50 crimes against humanity and war crimes in the devastating conflict, has been arrested more than 13 years after a warrant was issued for him and transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, authorities said Tuesday.
Kushayb surrendered to authorities in a remote corner of northern Central African Republic, near the country's border with Sudan, International Criminal Court spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said. He later added that Kushayb arrived at the ICC's detention center Tuesday evening.
In the Darfur conflict, rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
The government responded with a scorched-earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed militias known as the Janjaweed, who are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda said Kushayb’s surrender and transfer into the court’s custody nearly two decades after the Darfur conflict raged was “a powerful and somber reminder that the victims of atrocity crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan have waited too long to see justice done. The victims in the Darfur situation deserve to finally have their day in court.”
The ICC charged Sudan's ousted former president Omar al-Bashir with genocide for allegedly masterminding the campaign of attacks. Al-Bashir has not been turned over to the court to face trial. Kushayb's detention sets the stage for the court to hold its first trial focused on the Darfur conflict.
Brad Brooks-Rubin, managing director of The Sentry, a watchdog group co-founded by George Clooney, called Kushayb's detention “a modest triumph for the cause of accountability for atrocity crimes in Africa.”
"This represents a glimpse of hope for people in Darfur and around the world who desperately seek justice and security but are too often forgotten,” he said.
According to the ICC's arrest warrant, Kushayb is accused of commanding thousands of Janjaweed militia back in 2003-2004 and acting as a go-between for the militia and Sudanese government. The ICC says he “personally participated in some of the attacks against civilians” and allegedly “enlisted fighters, armed, funded and provided food and other supplies to the Janjaweed militia under his command.”
Among offenses listed on his arrest warrant are murder, rape, persecution and pillage.
No immediate date was set for Kushayb to appear before the court. At his initial appearance, judges will seek to confirm his identity and that he has read and understood the charges against him and his rights. The next stage will be a preliminary hearing, likely to be months from now, at which prosecutors will attempt to convince judges that their evidence is strong enough to merit putting Kushayb on trial. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.
Central African Republic Attorney General Eric Didier Tambo confirmed to The Associated Press that Kushayb had been extradited to The Hague in the Netherlands on Tuesday after being brought to Bangui the day before. It was not immediately known how long he had been in Central African Republic.
Kushayb and al-Bashir evaded arrest on war crimes charges for more than a decade amid reluctance by other African nations to carry out arrest warrants.
Al-Bashir, who is accused of crimes including genocide, traveled abroad freely and it was not until after he was deposed last year that Sudanese authorities agreed to extradite him to The Hague. However, the ex-president has not yet been turned over to the ICC.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Kushayb’s detention.
“Today is a landmark day for justice for victims of atrocities committed across Darfur and their families,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of the group’s International Justice Program. “The world watched in horror as Sudan’s government carried out brutal attacks on Darfur civilians, killing, raping, burning and looting villages, starting in 2003. But after 13 years, justice has finally caught up with one major fugitive of the crimes.
Kushayb's arrest underscored the importance of the International Criminal Court, which has faced fierce criticism from the United States.
“Justice is not always immediately possible, making the ICC’s role as a permanent court so critical,” she said. “ICC arrest warrants have no expiration date, but do rely on cooperation from states to be enforced.”
Mike Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this story.