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Sudan’s Pardon of Militia Leader Sends Wrong Message

Victims Await Justice for Darfur Atrocities

Sudanese Janjaweed militia chief Musa Hilal waves following his release in the Maamoura suburb of the capital Khartoum, Sudan, March 11, 2021.  © 2021 Ebrahim Hamid/AFP via Getty Images

On March 11, former Darfuri tribal leader, Musa Hilal, was released after four years in detention in Sudan’s capital Khartoum after being pardoned by the country’s Sovereign Council.

Hilal gained notoriety playing a well-documented role leading the Janjaweed militia and serving as a government advisor, as serious crimes were committed in Sudan’s Darfur conflict between 2002 and 2005. He defected from the former ruling party in 2014.

Human Rights Watch research in 2005 identified Hilal as a lynchpin for the government’s militia recruitment strategy and as central to numerous attacks against civilians in North Darfur between 2003 and 2004, aided and supported often by government forces. Eyewitnesses spoke of his direct involvement in abuses, for example, seeing Hilal take women prisoners at a market in 2004, their whereabouts were still unknown a year later.

However, Hilal’s 2017 arrest and conviction was not in connection with these crimes. Instead, Sudan’s former government brought Hilal and others before a military court for allegedly attacking government forces and committing related crimes in Darfur. There were a range of concerns surrounding Hilal’s detention, including that authorities kept him in an unknown location for a period of time and denied him access to his lawyers at least once.

While his pardon this week is only limited to those 2017 charges, the situation begs the question as to why a militia leader subject to such serious war crimes accusations is making headlines for being pardoned as opposed to being criminally investigated for Darfur atrocities.

Sudan’s transitional authorities have committed to ensuring accountability for crimes committed in Darfur, but victims and their families are still awaiting justice.

Sudan’s authorities should be vigorously investigating Musa Hilal and others responsible for the most serious violations in Darfur, with a view to ensuring they will see their day in court. The government should also take concrete steps towards establishing and operationalizing accountability mechanisms laid out in the Darfur peace agreement that include cooperation with the International Criminal Court and setting up a special court for Darfur. Without this, how can victims believe those responsible for crimes in Darfur will not go unpunished?

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