A leader of Sudan's infamous Janjaweed militia personally committed murders in Darfur, prosecutors said Monday as he became the first to face charges at the International Criminal Court over the conflict.
Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known by the nom du Guerre Ali Kushayb, was in court for a hearing to decide if there is enough evidence for a full trial on 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Prosecutors told the court in The Hague that Abd-Al-Rahman, an ally of deposed Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, was an "energetic perpetrator" of murders in the Darfur war in 2003-04.
The 70-year-old suspect, who handed himself in last year after more than a decade on the run, denies the charges.
"Feared and revered in equal measure as the colonel of colonels, he was a senior leader of the infamous Janjaweed militia," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court in The Hague.
"The evidence shows Mr. Abd-Al-Rahman was a knowing, willing and energetic perpetrator of these crimes. He played a crucial role, leading attacks, committing murders and ordering other murders."
The United Nations says 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million people were displaced in the Darfur conflict.
Fighting broke out in 2003 when ethnic African rebels, complaining of systematic discrimination, took up arms against Bashir's government.
Khartoum responded by unleashing a notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed, recruited from among the region's nomadic tribes.
ICC prosecutors said Abd-Al-Rahman, backed by Sudanese government forces, was responsible for attacks on villages in the Wadi Salih area of Darfur in August 2003.
"Civilians were attacked, raped and murdered, their homes and villages were destroyed, thousands were forcibly displaced," Bensouda said.
Many people fled to larger towns in the Mukjar and Delij areas seeking sanctuary, but "rather than finding protection, civilians were rounded up, arrested and detained" in early 2004, the prosecutor said.
"Men were loaded onto vehicles, taken a short distance away and executed in cold blood. Mr Abd-Al-Rahman was present at and directly participated in these callous crimes."
Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for three decades, was deposed in April 2019 following months of protests in Sudan, and is wanted by the ICC for genocide.
Abd-Al-Rahman fled to the Central African Republic in February 2020 when the new Sudanese government announced its intention to cooperate with the ICC's investigation.
Sudan's transitional administration is still in talks with the ICC about options for trying Bashir and his aides.