Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived at The Hague where she is expected to defend Myanmar against genocide charges.
The country’s de facto leader, a Nobel Peace laureate, is appearing before the UN’s highest court for a hearing into allegations that a military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority amounted to genocide.
Ms Suu Kyi is expected to argue that the military operations in 2017 were a legitimate counter-terrorism response to attacks by Rohingya militants.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh during the campaign, which involved mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes.
Members of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority were reported to have been praying for justice last night ahead of the hearing in the Netherlands.
Ms Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for championing democracy and human rights under Myanmar’s then-ruling junta, is set to defend those who once held her under house arrest.
The case before the UN’s International Court of Justice was launched by Gambia, which has a predominately Muslim population, in November.
Gambia has accused Buddhist-majority Myanmar of violating its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.
It is only the third genocide case filed at The Hague, the UN’s International Court of Justice, since World War Two. The other two relate to crimes in the former Yugoslavia: the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnia’s Muslim population in 1995 and the accusations of genocide between Croatia and Serbia during the Croatian war of secession.
Gambia will argue Myanmar’s forces carried out widespread and systematic atrocities under a campaign known as “operation clearance” from August 2017 that constituted genocide.
This week’s proceedings before a panel of 17 judges will not deal with the core allegation of genocide, but Gambia has requested a court order for Myanmar to halt any activity that may aggravate the dispute.
Gambia’s court has accused Myanmar of genocidal acts “intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses”.
The United Nations has said the campaign was executed with “genocidal intent.”
While the United States stopped short of calling it genocide, it said the acts amounted to “ethnic cleansing” and imposed sanctions against military leaders.
The tribunal, also known as the World Court, has no enforcement powers, but its rulings are final and have significant legal weight.
Hasina Begum, 22, said she was among many women raped by Myanmar soldiers who also burned down her village.
She said: “They have done these things to me, to my relatives and my friends. I can tell them face to face, looking them in the eyes, because I am not lying.”
Ms Begum arrived in The Hague on Monday with two other victims and an interpreter, having left the refugee camp in Bangladesh for the first time since she fled Myanmar.
She said from her hotel on the night before the hearings: “I feel great.
“Myanmar military raped many of our women. We want justice with the help of the international community.”