THE HAGUE, Netherlands – A Sudanese rebel leader surrendered to the International Criminal Court Monday to face war crimes charges stemming from the Darfur conflict and called on Sudan's president to do the same.
Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, 46, was the first suspect to appear before the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal in connection with Darfur. After a 35-minute hearing to hear the three charges against him — murder, pillaging and attacking peacekeepers — allegedly committed during an assault on African Union peacekeepers September 2007, he declared himself innocent.
"I am looking forward to clear my name from this case because I am sure ... that absolutely I am not guilty," Abu Garda told reporters at a press conference in a parking lot near the court.
"We are struggling in Darfur because there is no justice in Sudan so we cannot refuse to face justice," he said.
Abu Garda was the first rebel to be charged in the Darfur conflict. Sudanese government officials including President Omar al-Bashir have been charged with war crimes but refuse to acknowledge the court's jurisdiction.
"I call on Bashir and the others ... to come to face the justice here," Abu Garda said.
He is accused of helping lead 1,000 rebel soldiers as they stormed an African Union base in Haskanita, northern Darfur, and overpowered peacekeepers from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Botswana.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said 12 peacekeepers were killed and eight were severely wounded. The rebels also looted weapons, equipment and money, according to a prosecution statement.
Two other rebels, whose identities have not been released, also are suspected of involvement in the Haskanita attack.
Violence between ethnic African rebels and government troops backed by militias has killed up to 300,000 people in Darfur since 2003 and left about 2.7 million homeless, according to the U.N.
Abu Garda arrived Sunday on a commercial flight from Egypt before being taken to an undisclosed location under court authority.
Judge Cuno Tarfusser thanked him for surrendering.
"The court appreciates very much your voluntary appearance," Tarfusser said. "In doing so, I think you have sent out a very good message."
At his press conference, Abu Garda said his surrender was a matter of principle. He refused to discuss details of his case because of a court order limiting what he can say.
Abu Garda, wearing a gray suit and striped tie, answered "yes" when asked whether he understood the charges and his rights. He was not required to enter a plea.
He gave his profession as "commander of a resistance movement."
Tarfusser set Oct. 12 for a hearing of evidence, after which judges must rule whether the case is strong enough to merit a trial.
The judge said Abu Garda is expected to leave the Netherlands on Tuesday.
British defense lawyer Karim Khan said Abu Garda has not yet decided whether to attend the October hearing.
Rights groups said the trial was important for peacekeeping missions.
The case "signals the seriousness of deliberately attacking peacekeepers who are defending civilians," Human Rights Watch spokesman Richard Dicker said.
Al-Bashir was charged in March with orchestrating war crimes, but refused to recognize the Hague-based tribunal's authority or meet with investigators. He has since traveled to several countries allied to his regime that refused to execute an international arrest warrant the court issued.
"Voluntary appearance is always an option ... including for President al-Bashir, should he elect to cooperate," Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement Sunday.
The International Criminal Court prosecutes war crimes in countries where it has jurisdiction. It has been granted jurisdiction in Sudan by the United Nations.
Abu Garda also appealed to the international community to press Khartoum to allow international aid groups — expelled after al-Bashir was charged — to return because local groups cannot cope.
"If that doesn't happen, real genocide will happen in Darfur," he said.