War in Darfur: Wanted by the ICC, militia leader Ali Kushayb surrenders

Screenshot of the pro-government militia known as Janjaweed in Darfur, March 6, 2013, via Voice of America/public domain.

The Darfur War in Sudan began in February 2003 when the Sudanese government, under the helm of then-leader Omar al-Bashir, began an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arabs people in the Darfur region.

The Sudan Liberation Movement and Army and Justice and Equality Movement formed as rebel groups to defend themselves from these attacks. In the years that followed, Sudanese government forces including the military, police and Janjaweed, or Rapid Support Forces, clashed with these two groups. The war has left 50,000 to 80,000 dead and an estimated 1.2 million to 2 million people displaced.

Janjaweed worked with the Sudanese government through a liaison known as Ali Muhammad Ali Abd–Al-Rahman or “Ali Kushayb.” Wanted for years by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for multiple crimes against humanity, Kushayb remained in hiding in Darfur, under the radar — but now he has surrendered.

On February 23, an activist group in South Darfur claims the former Janjaweed leader fled Sudan, apparently in fear of arrest by Sudan's transitional government, under its declaration on February 11, 2020, to hand over all wanted persons by the ICC.

On June 8, several Sudanese activists discussed Kushayb's arrest by the United Nations forces in the Central Africa Republic. The next day, the ICC released a statement confirming his arrest:

Ali Muhammad Ali Abd–Al-Rahman, ‘Ali Kushayb’ is in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after surrendering himself voluntarily in the Central African Republic on account of an ICC arrest warrant issued on 27 April 2007.

Kushayb's photo circulated widely on Twitter:

Kushayb is scheduled to appear in an ICC courtroom on June 15.

Colonel of Colonels

Ali Kushayb was known as Colonel of Colonels. He was commander of the Central Reserve Forces, one of Sudan's police departments.

He was a member of the Popular Defence Forces, as well as a commander of a government-backed militia in Darfur, from August 2003 until March 2004. In conjunction with his work as a liaison between the Sudanese government and Janjaweed, he fought in attacks against the armed rebel movements.

Authorities arrested Kushayb in November 2006 in relation to rapes and murders that occurred in South and West Darfur. However, Ali was released and continued to move freely under police protection.

Wanted by the International Criminal Court  

On April 27, 2007, Luis Moreno Ocampo, a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the time, declared an arrest warrant for Kushayb. 

The ICC charged Kushayb with 504 assassinations, 20 rapes, and the forced displacement of 41,000 people during 2003 and 2004. Unfortunately, those numbers are low according to the United Nations. By their estimation, the death toll is about 300,000 people.

The ICC also demanded Sudan to hand him over but the Sudanese government at the time refused: They denied wrongdoing and insisted that any criminals arrested would be handled by Sudanese courts.

In August 2007, Amnesty International called for an end to impunity in Darfur, the arrest of Kushayb, and his surrender to the ICC. In May the following year, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to members of the UN Security Council demanding justice in Darfur.

In October 2008, authorities arrested Kushayb again to investigate the alleged crimes committed crimes in Darfur, likely to avoid handing him over to the ICC. The government eventually released him and he continued to move freely in Darfur. In July 2013, Kushayb was injured in an assassination attempt in Darfur.

Good at hiding, Kushayb wandered through Darfur amid a media blackout. No one really knew who he was and he never appeared much in mainstream media —even after the fall of Bashir in April 2019.

Bashir was also wanted by the ICC — the first president in history to be issued an arrest warrant.

International Criminal Court, The Hague, August 27, 2016. Photo by OSeveno via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

What next?

In response to Kushayb's voluntary handover, Secretary-General Khalid Omer of the Sudanese Congress Party tweeted:

The course of our people's revolution made important steps today, the first of which is the arrest of [Ali] Kushayb as a victory for justice, and the second is the decisions of the dismantling committee that continues its work to demolish tyranny. The revolution sometimes stumbles, but thanks to its people, it does not get lost. In the coming days, we await progress in the peace file and work together to complete its tasks in full, without exception.

But views social media seemed to split into two camps.

On the one hand, groups agree that Kushayb's arrest will attract Bashir and all other wanted criminals from the Bashir regime to turn themselves into the ICC. Bashir currently stays at the central jail in Khartoum, where Bashir may face the death penalty. He has nothing to lose by moving from Khartoum to The Hague, where life in the Netherlands is arguably more comfortable and void of the death penalty.

All Africa posted a photo showing the room where he will stay while he on trial. The room is luxurious compared to the conditions of most homes in Darfur, which led analyst Cameron Hudson to tweet this frustration:

On the other hand, Kushayb's arrest could threaten the stability and continuity of the transitional period as there are some faces in the new regime who were suspected of participating in Darfur crimes — such as deputy president of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, — popularly known as Hemedti.

Hemedti is the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). According to a Human Rights Watch report from September 2015, RSF operated as a group of “men with no mercy‘ who killed indiscriminately and gang-raped women.

Recording these crimes at the ICC may create high pressure on Hemedti and his partners that could lead to thoughts about a military coup to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, several diplomatic voices including France and the Netherlands applauded the development. Steve Blok, a Dutch foreign ِِaffairs minister, tweeted:

Transitional justice

Some voices in Sudan are calling for community-based, government-led transitional justice processes to handle war criminals like Ali Kushayb, as opposed to regular justice processes through the courts, which could be time-consuming and costly.

In an interview with Radio Dabanga, Mohamed Abdelsalam, professor of international law at the University of Khartoum, describes the importance of transitional justice for Sudan:

It will make negotiations and a democratic transition in Sudan possible. Sudan needs institutional reform in the judiciary, the public prosecution, the army, the police and other institutions that provide public services.

If the criminal justice system, its institutions and its laws, will not be reformed, it will not be capable nor willing to prosecute the serious human rights violations and crimes that took place in the country. We need the establishment of institutions and courts that are in accordance with international standards.

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