THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An alleged leader of a Sudanese militia known as “devils on horseback” took a “strange glee” in his ruthless reputation during the Darfur conflict, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Tuesday as the suspect’s trial opened.

The 72-year-old defendant, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd–Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, pleaded innocent 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 province nearly two decades ago.

The trial opened amid global condemnation of atrocities blamed on Russian forces in the Ukraine war and is a reminder that international courts can and do bring alleged perpetrators of crimes to justice, even if the painstaking process can be long and slow.

Prosecutor Karim Khan called the trial “an important moment in trying to wake peace from its slumber and try to move it, mobilize it, into action.”

He noted that Russia voted for a United Nations Security Council mandate in 2005 that sought an ICC investigation in Darfur.

Prosecutors say Abd-Al-Rahman was a senior commander in the janjaweed militias 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.

Then-President Omar al-Bashir’s government responded with a scorched-earth campaign of aerial bombings and raids by the janjaweed, 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.

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

“You will see that he took pride in the power that he thought he exerted and the authority that he had,” Khan said. “And … strange glee in a feared reputation. You’ll hear evidence … that his forces and himself rampaged across different parts of Darfur.”

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

“In my community, a girl who has been raped has no value,” Khan cited one Darfuri as saying.

One witness quoted by Khan in his opening statement to the trial described seeing an infant breast feeding from its dead mother in the aftermath of an attack.

Prosecutors rejected Abd-Al-Rahman’s defense that they have the wrong man.

“The evidence will show that it is Ali Kushayb in the courtroom, finally facing justice,” senior trial lawyer Julian Nicholls told the court.

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.

Abd-Al-Rahman is suspected of crimes allegedly committed between August 2003 and at least April 2004 in Darfur including murder, torture, rape, persecution and attacking civilians.

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

“There’s so many examples of abuse, not just using his axe, not just killing people or ordering the execution of children or men, allowing rapes and participating in all of the allegations that are charged and are before you,” he said. “But just really beastly abuse.”

Zuhal Ahmed, a Sudanese-American activist and head of the Darfur Community in Arizona, lauded the trial as “the beginning of victory” for the people of Darfur.

“To see Ali Kushayb standing before court after all those years, is (a) really big victory and we hope he gets the maximum penalty,” she said.

She called for international pressure on the Sudanese military to hand over other suspects wanted by the court including al-Bashir.

“The people of Darfur and all Sudanese consider the ICC the only hope of justice and we can’t wait to see the rest who were involved to be arrested and handed over the ICC,” she said.

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.

At least 45 people were killed last week in the latest bout of fighting between Arab and non-Arab tribes in South Darfur.

Khan said he hoped that by the end of the trial “the first drops of justice will land on what has hitherto been a desert of impunity in Darfur.”

___

Associated Press writer Sam Magdy in Cairo contributed.