Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in a conflict almost 20 years ago.

Abd-Al-Rahman has pleaded innocent to all 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Abd-Al-Rahman has pleaded innocent to all 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. (AA)

A former Sudanese militia chief led a campaign of murder, rape and torture across Darfur, the International Criminal Court has heard, as the first trial for war crimes in the region gets underway.

The 72-year-old defendant, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, pleaded innocent on Tuesday to all 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“I reject all of these charges,” he told the court in the first ICC trial to deal with atrocities by Sudanese government-backed forces in the Darfur region nearly two decades ago.

Prosecutors say Abd-Al-Rahman was a senior commander in the the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), a government-linked militia known as the Janjaweed, during the Darfur conflict that erupted when 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 the capital, Khartoum.

President Omar al Bashir’s government responded with a scorched-earth campaign of aerial bombings and raids by the PDF, who often attacked at dawn, sweeping into villages on horseback or camelback.

The campaign included mass killings and rapes, torture and persecution. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes in Darfur over the years because of the fighting, famine and disease.

Prosecutor Karim Khan said that Abd-Al-Rahman was "a willing and knowing participant in crimes” and “one of the key senior PDF militia leaders” who worked “hand-in-glove” with the Sudanese government.

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‘A rare long-awaited chance for victims’

Khan said witnesses will tell the three-judge trial panel about attacks, murders and rapes and describe the horrors inflicted on villages and the enduring consequences of the attacks.

Al Bashir, who has been in prison in Khartoum since he was ousted from power in 2019, also faces ICC charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the Darfur conflict.

Khan told judges they would hear many chilling accounts of “beastly” violence by Abd-Al-Rahman himself during the trial that is expected to last many months.

Abd-Al-Rahman is the first suspect to be tried for war crimes committed in Darfur -- "a rare long-awaited chance for the victims and the communities the PDF terrorised to see an alleged leader face justice," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.

His trial is also the first-ever stemming from a UN Security Council referral.

The trial opens amid a recent rise in violence in Darfur, which has seen deadly clashes between rival tribes in recent months as the country remains mired in a wider crisis following last year’s coup, when top generals overthrew a civilian-led government.

READ MORE: UN: Two billion people living in conflict zones

Source: AP