Sudanese militia leader Musa Hilal freed after pardon

A Sudanese militia leader accused by rights groups of atrocities in Darfur was released from a Khartoum prison on Wednesday following a pardon by Sudan’s ruling council, the movement he heads said in a statement.

Human rights groups accused Musa Hilal of coordinating Arab militias blamed for atrocities during a conflict in Darfur that left an estimated 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced.

Hilal has previously denied responsibility for atrocities, saying he mobilised his tribesmen to defend their lands after a government call to popular defence against non-Arab rebels.

Darfur’s conflict escalated in 2003 as the rebels rose up against Khartoum, and then-President Omar al-Bashir relied on militias loyal to Hilal to help suppress the revolt.

After turning against Bashir, Hilal was captured in November 2017 by forces belonging to the current deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

The military-civilian council is leading Sudan through a transition after Bashir was overthrown and jailed in 2019 following months of popular protests.

Several of the rebel groups that fought in Darfur signed a peace deal with transitional authorities last year and have taken positions in the government.

Dagalo and Hilal, who both hail from the Rizeigat tribe, remain in competition for political and economic influence in Darfur. Both have held gold mining interests in the region.

Despite Hilal’s detention, many of the Arab militias still active in Darfur remain loyal to him, and he remains leader of the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening Council movement.

A U.N. report issued in January said Hilal’s supporters had become increasingly disgruntled over the detention of their leader and some had turned to military action in Darfur’s Jebel Marra area and in Libya.

Hilal is subject to an asset freeze and travel ban under U.N. sanctions but is not sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is seeking Bashir and three other Sudanese suspects on charges relating to Darfur.