THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court chief prosecutor named a Sudanese minister and a militia commander on Tuesday as the first suspects he wants tried for war crimes in Darfur and suggested more could follow.
Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked pre-trial judges to issue summonses for Ahmed Haroun, state interior minister during the height of the Darfur conflict, and militia commander Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb.
“Our work sends a signal: those who commit atrocities cannot do so without impunity,” he told a news conference.
Moreno-Ocampo accused the pro-government Janjaweed militia and the Sudanese army of targeting civilian populations they believed supported rebel forces who took up arms in 2003 against the Khartoum government, charging it with neglect.
Haroun is currently Sudan’s state humanitarian affairs minister, a post below the full ministerial level. Prosecutors said he conspired with Kushayb, allegedly a Janjaweed commander who led attacks on towns and villages where dozens were killed.
In a 94-page filing, ICC prosecutors accused the two of criminal responsibility in relation to 51 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2003 and 2004, and urged Khartoum to make sure the suspects appear at the court.
Experts say some 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million others driven from their homes in Darfur since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003. Khartoum says about 9,000 people have died.
U.N. and African Union observers blame pro-government militias for the worst atrocities. The Sudanese government has denied arming the Janjaweed, which it describes as outlaws.
Khartoum said the ICC had no jurisdiction to try any Sudanese suspects, either rebels or from the government side.
“All the evidence the prosecutor referred to is lies given to him by people who bear arms against the state, bear arms against citizens and kill innocent citizens in Darfur,” Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi said in Khartoum.
Human rights groups welcomed the ICC move, particularly as it targeted a minister, the first government figure the ICC has named as a suspect after focusing on rebel leaders in other investigations into Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
U.N. human rights commissioner Louise Arbour, whose office has accused Khartoum of systematically failing to protect civilians and bring those responsible to justice, said she hoped the move would be a “strong deterrent” against more bloodshed.
She said she expected more charges would be brought against high level officials from both the government and rebel side.
Former Darfur rebels also welcomed the ICC action.
“This process of bringing the people who perpetrated crimes in Darfur to justice ... is a historic moment for us and for our families in Darfur,” said Al-Tayyib Khamis, spokesman for the only rebel group to sign a 2006 peace deal with the government.
Moreno-Ocampo said investigations were continuing and noted his office was monitoring the spill-over of violence from Darfur into Chad and the Central African Republic. He said fighting in Darfur made investigations difficult, but his team had taken 100 witness statements during 70 missions to 17 countries.
The prosecutor said the evidence collected showed Haroun funded the Janjaweed from an unlimited budget that was not publicly audited and was seen personally delivering arms, ammunition and well-guarded boxes to the militia in Darfur.
He said Kushayb was seen giving orders to the Janjaweed, personally inspecting a group of naked women before they were raped by men in military uniforms and personally participating in summary executions, one involving at least 32 men.
Haroun’s office said he was in Jordan this week for medical treatment but would be returning to Sudan shortly.
Sudan said Kushayb had been in Sudanese custody since November and was under investigation for actions in Darfur.
The ICC is only supposed to prosecute when national courts are unwilling or unable to act, but rights groups say Khartoum’s own investigations into Darfur have been largely for show.
Moreno-Ocampo said prosecutors had taken into account Sudan’s Darfur investigations, including into Kushayb’s activities, but said their case was still admissible because it encompassed more extensive allegations.
He said it could take several months for the ICC judges to decide on whether to issue summons or arrest warrants.
The U.N. Security Council asked the ICC in March 2005 to launch an investigation into the violence in Darfur, which the United States has called genocide, a charge Khartoum denies.
The charges against the two suspects do not include genocide, but Moreno-Ocampo said he could not rule out that this might be included in future investigations.
The ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes court, started work in 2002 and is now supported by 104 nations, although still not by Russia, China and the United States.
Additional reporting by Aziz el-Kaissouni in Khartoum, and Richard Waddington in Geneva