By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, May 17 -- The International Criminal Court's pretrial judges have summoned three Sudanese rebel leaders to appear before the Hague-based tribunal to face charges of ordering a deadly attack against African Union peacekeepers in Darfur more than 18 months ago, according to sources close to the court.
It is the first time that Darfur's rebels have been charged with war crimes since the court began investigating mass violence in that Sudanese region in 2005. Until now, the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has focused on the Sudanese government's role in atrocities, and has issued arrest warrants for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a top aide and an allied militia leader.
The court's pretrial judges issued a sealed ruling on May 7 that there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that the three rebel officers committed war crimes when they led a raid Sept. 29, 2007, on an African Union compound in the town of Haskanita. Twelve peacekeepers were killed, and eight were seriously wounded. The ruling, which was made public Sunday, asserted that the officers were in command of splinter factions from Sudan's main rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
One of the accused commanders, Bahar Abu Garda, who heads the rebel United Resistance Front, arrived in the Netherlands on Sunday. He is set to appear Monday before the court, where he is charged with three counts of war crimes, including murder, pillaging and mounting an attack on a peacekeeping mission.
The prosecutor charged that Garda and the two other unidentified commanders led a heavily armed force of more than 1,000 rebels against an outnumbered contingent of Senegalese, Malian and Botswanan peacekeepers. It is not known whether the commanders plan to appear before the court.
"After the attack, the three commanders personally participated, alongside the joint rebel forces, in pillaging the camp, and removing property belonging to AMIS [the African Union Mission in Sudan] including approximately seventeen vehicles, as well as refrigerators, computers, cellular phones, military boots and uniforms, fuel, ammunition and money," according to a court document.
While Darfur's rebel factions are believed to be responsible for a small portion of the killings in the region, they have frequently targeted foreign peacekeepers and aid workers, and have stolen vehicles, communications equipment and other items that they have used to bolster their capacity to fight the government.
Moreno-Ocampo wrote in November that he decided to prosecute the rebels because attacks on peacekeepers and aid workers constitute an "exceptionally serious offense" that strikes at the heart of the international community's ability to maintain peace and security in conflict zones such as Darfur.
The violence began in early 2003, when the JEM and another Darfurian rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, took up arms against government security forces, saying that Khartoum discriminated against the region's main tribes. The rebel movement has since fragmented into several armed groups.
Sudan's Islamic government responded with a campaign involving allied Arab Janjaweed militia. The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 people have died as a result of the violence, mostly from disease, hunger and malnutrition, and that more than 2.5 million have been forced from their homes.
In June, Moreno-Ocampo accused Bashir of orchestrating genocide against the region's Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes. The court's pretrial judges dismissed the genocide charge but issued a warrant against Bashir in March on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Court supporters said they hope the latest action will counter critics' assertions that the court is biased against the Sudanese government and that it has unfairly targeting African perpetrators of war crimes. Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador, Christian Wenaweser, who serves as president of the ICC's Assembly of States Parties, said, "It shows that the ICC is protecting African nationals against war crimes, particularly those trying to help make peace."