The International Criminal Court said Monday it was considering bringing charges of genocide against government officials in Sudan because of the atrocities that had occurred in the western region of Darfur. Announcing a formal investigation into the murders, rapes and massacres that have taken place in recent years, a spokesman for the court said evidence was being gathered and a list of suspects would be drawn up.
Yves Sorokobi, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said: "What we are doing now is beginning an investigation into crimes against humanity -- war crimes and possibly crimes of genocide. Our conclusions will be based on the information and evidence that we collect." He said the court had "thousands of documents."
Investigators hope to complete their work over months rather than years. Sorokobi said trials might take place in Sudan or a neighboring African country, rather than in the Hague, where the court is based. "We are considering the possibility of trials in the region. We are absolutely open to that. It depends on what can be achieved logistically. In order to conduct trials, certain people have to be in custody. They have to be held in certain conditions to ensure their own safety and security, and the safety of victims and witnesses," he said.
Across Darfur, there have been widespread killings of civilians, mass rape and large-scale destruction of villages by pro-government militias known as the Janjaweed, often backed by government troops and Antonov bombers.
A U.N. commission of inquiry absolved the Sudanese government of genocide, but said there had been serious violations of human rights that should be investigated as crimes. The U.N. has compiled a list of more than 50 suspects, which were forwarded to the ICC. Musa Hilal, a Sudanese tribal leader identified by the U.S. State Department as a "Janjaweed coordinator," is thought to be among them. Witnesses claim he personally led Janjaweed forces who killed 67 civilians, raped a number of women and abducted 16 schoolgirls in the town of Tawila in 2004.
Hilal has admitted recruiting men for pro-government militias, but denies playing a personal role in the fighting. In an interview with the Guardian last year, he conceded that militia fighters had killed civilians. "Most of the [rebel] garrisons were near the villages, near civilians," he said. "They stayed near civilians, and war has its consequences. Bullets fly."
The Sudanese government has refused to extradite war crimes suspects to the Hague. It claims it has already arrested suspects and will carry out its own trials. But the U.N. has said Sudan's justice system was "unable and unwilling" to address crimes in Darfur.
Women in Darfur have told the Guardian the police refused to listen to their claims. Midwives in the refugee camps said police failed to act despite evidence, including injuries from beatings that often accompanied the rapes. One midwife in a camp near El Geneina said: "If a girl goes to the police, the police tell her: 'It is better for you not to say anything about this rape.' We have seen cases where women were injured. One had a cut to her neck from a knife; another was struck on the head by an ax."
Human rights groups say Sudan prefers to attack its critics rather than deal with alleged war crimes.
Last week, two aid workers from Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) were arrested over a report detailing about 500 cases of rape in Darfur. One was accused of spying and spreading false information. Sudanese officials said MSF had failed to hand over evidence of the alleged rapes, but the aid agency cited patient confidentiality.
The rebellion in Darfur began in 2003. Rebels from black African tribes claimed their region had been neglected by the central government. Khartoum responded with a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign, burning or bombing villages suspected of harboring rebel sympathizers. More than a million civilians were driven from their homes.