The International Criminal Court's prosecutor on Tuesday named a former Sudanese minister and a militia commander as the first suspects for war crimes in the Darfur conflict.
Concluding an investigation that lasted 20 months, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said there are reasonable grounds to believe that the two suspects were jointly responsible for 51 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against civilians in Darfur between 2003 and 2004.
Ahmad Muhammad Harun, former Sudanese interior minister in charge of the western Darfur region, was allegedly in conspiracy with the militia to carry out indiscriminate attacks against civilians in a counterinsurgency campaign by the Sudanese government. According to the prosecutor, Harun helped recruit, fund and arm the Janjaweed militia "that would ultimately number in the tens of thousands."
Ali Kushayb, one of the key leaders commanding thousands of militia, was accused of victimizing the civilian population through mass rape, killings, torture, looting and other alleged criminal acts.
A pre-trial chamber of The Hague-based court (ICC) will decide whether to start trial over the case and may issue international arrest warrants or summons to the suspects to appear in court.
But the Sudanese government has repeatedly said it will not transfer any Sudanese to the ICC for trial.
The ICC criminal investigation was launched after the United Nations Security Council referred the Darfur situation to the court in March 2005, a decision opposed by Sudan, which insisted on its own prosecution.
Following the UN Security Council's resolution, the Sudanese government established an ad hoc war crimes tribunal to carry out its own prosecution of war crimes suspects in the Darfur conflict.
Kushayb was already under the domestic custody, awaiting formal charges.
The ICC is only supposed to intervene when national courts are unwilling or unable to act. But the ICC prosecution said their case would be admissible because it covers more extensive allegations than the investigations launched by Sudan.
The ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, was established in 1998 by a multinational treaty called Rome Statute, which entered into force four years later and has been adopted by 104 countries.
The court tries persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Tuesday extended his welcome to the announcement of the ICC prosecution, calling on the Sudanese government to fully cooperate with the court.
"The European Union is one of the strongest advocates of the International Criminal Court and appreciates today's decision, which will further the cause of peace," Solana said in a statement, stressing that peace for the region of Darfur can not be founded on impunity.
Fighting in Darfur flared in early 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. The UN estimates that some 200,000 people have died as a result of the conflict, while another 2.5 million have been forced from their homes. The figures have been strongly contested by Khartoum.