Warrant for Sudan's president's arrest could spark backlash

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2009 

WORLD NEWS SUDAN ABA

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Wednesday, March 4, 2009, for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, shown here at the 20th Arab League Leaders Summit in Damascus, Syria, March 29, 2008, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

AMMAR ABD RABBO / MCT

NAIROBI, Kenya _ The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir for atrocities in Darfur, marking a milestone for the seven-year-old war-crimes court but opening an uncertain chapter for one of Africa's most fragile nations.

It's the first time that the court _ the world's first permanent war crimes court _ has called for the arrest of a head of state. Bashir is the first sitting president to be sought for war crimes since Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's Charles Taylor, who were charged by other, temporary tribunals.

In demanding Bashir's arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes in Darfur _ the impoverished western region where Sudan has waged a massive counterinsurgency campaign since 2003 _ a three-judge panel effectively waved off the concerns of many African and Arab diplomats who argued that an arrest warrant would imperil the prospects of ending what's become one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The judges, based at The Hague, said Bashir "coordinated the design and implementation" of the Arab-dominated government's war on non-Arab rebels. By a 2-1 margin, however, the judges said they didn't have enough evidence to support charges that Bashir committed genocide against Darfur's non-Arab tribes. "Omar al Bashir is suspected of being criminally responsible . . . for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur," said the court's spokeswoman, Laurence Blairon.

Activist groups celebrated. John Norris, the head Enough, of one of the most vocal U.S. advocacy organizations, said: "This message should be heard loudly and clearly around the globe: If you kill, maim, and rape your own citizens, there will be a cost for your actions."

It's unlikely, however, that Bashir, who denies the charges, will appear in court anytime soon. Sudan, like the U.S., isn't a party to the court and says it won't hand over Bashir or the two other men charged in connection with crimes in Darfur.

"The people of Sudan are now joined more than ever before," said a government spokesman, Rabbie Abdel Atti. "We are insisting not to obey and not to surrender those people accused by the ICC."

That would make the 65-year-old Bashir, who's ruled since 1989, a fugitive from international justice. Many in Sudan fear the government will retaliate against Western aid agencies and 13,000 United Nations peacekeepers monitoring more than 2.5 million people living in refugee camps in Darfur.

On Wednesday, two major relief agencies said they were told by Sudanese authorities to restrict their work. Doctors Without Borders said it was ordered to remove international staff from several health care projects in Darfur, and the British charity Oxfam said that the government revoked its license to operate in northern Sudan, including Darfur, endangering humanitarian relief to 600,000 people.

"We hear preliminary reports that they will expel a bunch" of relief agencies, said one Western diplomat in Khartoum who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

In the run-up to the judges' decision Sudanese authorities raided the offices of several human-rights organizations and froze some groups' bank accounts. Two weeks ago, Salah Gosh, the powerful head of intelligence, warned anyone who would dare to cooperate with the court that "we will cut off his hands, head and body parts."

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that attacks on Sudanese or foreign interests "won't be tolerated." He declined to say, however, whether President Barack Obama thought Bashir was guilty of war crimes.

Since July, when prosecutors indicted Bashir, his National Congress Party as well as opposition parties have appeared to rally around the bespectacled leader and accused the court of violating Sudanese sovereignty. Many Arab and African leaders, perhaps fearing investigations on their own soil, have vowed not to arrest Bashir if he travels to their countries.

Egypt, a traditional ally, called on the U.N. Security Council to defer the arrest warrant for 12 months to allow the Sudanese government to continue peace negotiations to continue. Experts said, however, that Obama _ whose advisers have taken a tough line against Bashir in the past _ was unlikely to back any delay by the Security Council.

Some experts think that steady pressure from foreign countries could tamp down the regime's bluster and perhaps force Bashir to capitulate.

"They will hold more rallies, but that is going to end and then they will have to sit down and think about the implications of this," said Hafiz Mohammed, a Sudan expert with the British-based advocacy group Justice Africa. "For them to corner themselves and to take an aggressive approach, this is not going to save them in the long term."

The judges' decision had been expected since July, when the court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, presented evidence that Sudanese military forces and allied "janjaweed" Arab militias, acting on Bashir's orders, murdered, raped or tortured thousands of civilians and forcibly removed hundreds of thousands from their homes starting in March 2003.

More than 100,000 civilians have endured "slow death" from hunger, illness and poor living conditions in the camps, Moreno-Ocampo said. Sudanese officials have put the death toll in Darfur at 10,000.

Two out of three judges said Moreno-Ocampo didn't produce enough evidence to support the charge that Bashir committed genocide _ that is, that he specifically intended to destroy members of the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa tribes, the largest ethnic groupings in Darfur. The judges said they would reconsider that decision if they received more evidence.

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