How war crimes may catch up with Russia

The long arm of international law has just reached Sudan over atrocities in Darfur, giving hope to Ukraine of similar justice someday.

War crime prosecutor's team member speaks on the phone April 7 next to buildings destroyed in Borodyanka by Russian shelling.

Despite the mounting evidence of war crimes by his troops against civilians in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows two things. He holds a veto in the United Nations Security Council over referrals to the International Criminal Court, and the gears of international justice turn slowly.

Yet far from Ukraine, at the ICC in The Hague, a new trial may make it harder for Mr. Putin to assume impunity. And that goes for officials around him who, out of either fear or conscience, may eventually think twice about still supporting the war.

On Tuesday, the ICC opened the first trial into state-sponsored atrocities that killed an estimated 300,000 people in the Sudanese region of Darfur between 2003 and 2004 and left 2.7 million more displaced. What makes this different from past international war crimes trials of defendants from places like the former Yugoslavia is that a regime with direct ties to the atrocities is still in place. That adds an immediacy that previous international tribunals lacked – and it points to the real-time value of collecting evidence of possible war crimes in Ukraine.

The ICC’s first Darfur trial comes at a time when pro-democracy movements in Sudan are mounting a sustained effort to restore civilian control following a military coup last October. As prosecutors put on record evidence of past atrocities, they are amplifying popular demands for justice now. “There are no guarantees for the victims and their families if any of the trials are inside Sudan, so the role of the ICC is very important for justice in Darfur,” Salah Aldoma, a Sudanese analyst, told Middle East Eye.

A trial of a Syrian government official in a German court earlier this year has had a similar effect among Syrians yearning to hold dictator Bashar al-Assad accountable for war crimes during the country’s ongoing civil war. The conviction in that trial “sends a message to all the criminals and dictators who are comfortable thanks to the political relationships that protect them: Nobody can protect you – if the victims decide to have justice,” Syrian lawyer and former political prisoner Anwar al-Bunni told the Monitor. On Thursday in Germany, two former ministers submitted a criminal complaint with federal prosecutors seeking a war crimes investigation against Russian officials, including Mr. Putin.

In the ICC trial, defendant Ali Muhammad Abd al-Rahman is an alleged former leader of the janjaweed militia that conducted a reign of terror across Darfur at the behest of former military dictator Omar al-Bashir. He faces 31 counts of war crimes, including mass murder and rape.

As the trial began, thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched through the streets of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, commemorating Mr. Bashir’s fall three years ago and demanding the removal of a military junta that took power last October. The regime has blocked Mr. Bashir’s extradition to The Hague. Its deputy leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was one of the most feared commanders of the janjaweed. Human rights groups have accused him of mass murder and rape.

For Sudan, prosecuting Mr. Rahman marks a turning point. As ICC Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan said in his opening remarks on Wednesday, “By the end of this trial, I’m confident that the first few drops of justice will land on what has hitherto been a desert of impunity in Darfur.”

It may do more than that. It is showing ordinary Sudanese that their long quest for justice and democracy matters. As the international community gathers evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, the leaders of Russia may be taking note.

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