THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Prosecutors accused a Sudanese rebel leader Monday of planning a deliberate attack that killed 12 African peacekeepers, in the first Darfur case to reach an international tribunal.
The charges against Bahr Idriss Abu Garda came at a hearing to establish whether prosecutors of the International Criminal Court have enough evidence to warrant a trial.
Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Abu Garda, 46, ordered an attack on African Union peacekeepers because he was hoping it would win his breakaway rebel faction a spot at peace talks scheduled for the following month in Libya.
Bensouda said the victims were not killed accidentally or in a crossfire. "Most were shot at close range. They were executed," she said.
Abu Garda's lawyer denied his client was behind the 2007 attack.
"My client did not order the attack, he did not encourage it, he did not aid and abet it, he did not support it. He did not take part in that attack at all," Karim Khan said.
Abu Garda surrendered voluntarily to the court last May and was released. He returned to the courtroom Monday, waiving his right to stay away from the pretrial stage.
He is charged with three counts of attacking and killing peacekeepers and pillaging their camp.
The hearing was scheduled to last two weeks. The judges then have 60 days to decide whether sufficient grounds exist to bring the case to trial.
Khan said the prosecution's evidence was "deficient, unreliable. It is incomplete," and it would be "unjustified to allow this case to continue."
The case would test international law that attacking noncombatant peace forces is a war crime.
"Peacekeepers must be protected by more than just the weapons and armor of war. They must be shielded by international law," Bensouda told the three judges from Brazil, Italy and Botswana.
It also is a milestone in the court's attempts to prosecute atrocities in Darfur. Its highest profile suspect, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, has defied an arrest warrant and refused to face charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding attacks on African tribal settlements and refugee camps throughout Darfur.
U.N. officials say the war, which began in 2003, has claimed at least 300,000 lives from violence, disease and displacement and forced some 2.7 million people from their homes.
Bensouda said about 1,000 fighters from three rebel groups attacked the African mission camp in a convoy of 30 vehicles in the evening of Sept. 29, 2007. Fighting lasted through the night, with survivors hiding in trenches or fleeing into the darkness, she said.
Abu Garda knew the peacekeepers had protected status, and he had been party to the agreement that brought the African Mission in Sudan to Darfur.
"There was no mistake," she said.
The peacekeepers, sent to protect civilians against the killing and rape by government-backed forces, "were murdered. The base was closed, leaving thousands of civilians unprotected," she said.
One prosecution witness, a senior military officer, will testify that the attack had sent "a chilling and disturbing message" to peacekeeping forces, and that the trial of Abu Garda would restore some confidence, Bensouda said.