ICC re Haskanita: Sudanese rebel leaders face war crimes charges
From Washington Post by Colum Lynch, Staff Writer, Sunday, May 17, 2009:
Sudanese Rebel Leaders Face War Crimes Charges
International Criminal Court Charges Stem From Raid on African Union Troops in Darfur
UNITED NATIONS, May 17-- The International Criminal Court's pre-trial 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 opened its investigation into mass violence in Darfur in 2005. Until now, the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has focused primarily on the Sudanese government's role in atrocities, issuing arrest warrants for Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a top aide, and an allied militia leader.
The court's pre-trial 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 September, 29, 2007, raid on an African Union compound in the town of Haskanita, Darfur, killing 12 peacekeepers and seriously wounded 8 more. The ruling, which was made public Sunday, claimed the officers were in command of splinter factions from Sudan's main rebel force, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
One of the accused commanders, Bahar Idris Abu Garda, who now heads the breakaway rebel United Resistance Front, voluntarily surrendered himself to the court. He is scheduled 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 rebel troops against an outnumbered contingent of Senegalese, Malian and Botswanan peacekeepers.
"After the attack, the three commanders personally participated, alongside the joint rebel forces, in pillaging the camp, and removing property belonging to [the African Union Mission in Sudan] AMIS 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 responsible for a small portion of the killings in the region, they have frequently targeted foreign peacekeepers and aid workers, stealing 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 constitutes an "exceptionally serious offense" that strikes at the heart of the international community's ability to maintain peace and security in conflict zones like Darfur.
"The attack on African Union peacekeepers in Haskanita was an attack on millions of civilians they had come to protect; we will prosecute those allegedly responsible," Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement Sunday.
The latest violence in Darfur begain in early 2003, when the JEM and another Darfurian rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, took up arms against government security forces, claiming the government discriminated against the region's main tribes. The rebel movement has since fragmented into several armed groups.
Khartoum's Islamic government responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, involving allied Arab Janjaweed militia. The U.N. estimates that more than 300,000 people have died as a result of the violence, mostly from disease, hunger and malnutrition, and more than 2.5 million have been forced from their homes.
In June, Moreno-Ocampo accused Bashir of orchestrating a campaign of genocide against the region's Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes. The court's pre-trial judges dismissed the genocide charge, but issued an arrest warrant against Bashir in March on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A pre-trial panel of three judges also secretly issued summonses for the two other unidentified rebel commanders, who face similar war crimes charges, according to officials familiar with the case. It remains unclear whether they have plans to turn themselves into the court.
The court's supporters said they hoped the latest action would counter critics assertions that the court is biased against the Sudanese government, and that it has unfairly targeting African perpetrators of war crimes.
"This case is of particular significance because the victims were all African peacekeepers," said Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador, Christian Wenewaser, who serves as president of the ICC's Assembly of States Parties.
"It shows that the ICC is protecting African nationals against war crimes, particularly those trying to help make peace."
Fabienne Hara, director of the New York office of the International Crisis Group, said the prosecutor will have a hard time convincing Sudanese people that he is not intent on "regime change."
Hara, who previously served as a senior U.N. political advisor in Sudan, said the prosecutor should have pursued his case against the rebels at the same time he went after Bashir. She said it is now unlikely that the court's case against the rebel commanders will overcome hardened Sudanese perceptions that the court is siding with the country's rebels.