UN court issues warrant for Sudan president
By Marlise Simons
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Judges at the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest on Wednesday of
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, charging him with war crimes and
crimes against humanity for a concerted government campaign against civilians
in the Darfur region.
They did not charge him with genocide, denying the request by the prosecutor.
In issuing the order, the three judges brushed aside diplomatic requests for
more time for peace talks and fears that the warrant would incite a violent
backlash in the country, where 2.5 million people have been chased from their
homes and 300,000 have died in a five-year-old conflict pitting non-Arab rebel
groups against the Arab-dominated government and militias.
It is the first time the court, which opened in 2002 and is seated in The
Hague, has sought the arrest of a sitting head of state. Other international
war crimes courts have issued warrants for sitting presidents, including
Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia.
Human rights groups and Darfur exiles saluted the order. Niemat Ahmadi, a
native of Darfur and an activist, called the warrant a lifeline for the many
Darfurians living in displaced-persons camps.
"It will change the mood of frustration and helplessness for our people,"
Ahmadi told reporters at the United Nations. "Now they can feel that there is a
way for their problem to be addressed."
Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch, said, "This means he will be
a fugitive, a man on a wanted poster held to be most responsible for the
atrocities of Darfur."
Reaction from Sudan, which has vowed to defy the court, was swift.
"We strongly condemn this criminal move," said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, the
Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations. "It amounts to an attempt at regime
change. We are not going to be bound by it, we are not going to respect it."
Within minutes of the court's announcement, thousands of people gathered in
central Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, waving national flags and posters
showing the Bashir's face and denouncing the court's decision.
Reuters also reported that Sudan had revoked the operating licenses of at least
six international humanitarian agencies, citing aid officials.
The criminal court judges took more than seven months to examine the evidence
on Bashir before charging him with five counts of crimes against humanity,
including murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The two
counts of war crimes were for attacks against a civilian population and for
In their statement, the judges said the court did not recognize immunity for a
head of state and called for the cooperation of all countries - not just the
108 nations that are members of the court - to bring Bashir to justice.
Under the rules of the UN charter and Security Council, Sudan is legally
obliged to arrest Bashir, the judges said - but that appears unlikely. The
court has no police force or military of its own, and the 24,000 or so UN
peacekeepers operating in Sudan have no mandate to detain war crimes suspects.
Abdalhaleem also said he was not worried about the president being arrested if
he traveled to any friendly country, since many African and Arab states have
expressed support for him.
The question of whether genocide was being committed in Darfur has been
divisive, and was so among the judges, who said 2-to-1 that the prosecutor had
not provided sufficient evidence of the government's intent, the key issue in
determining genocide. The Bush administration and other governments, as well as
some human rights activists, have called the attacks on civilians government's
actions genocide. The United Nations has stopped short of doing so.
Proving genocide in court is difficult. Genocide requires proof that an accused
had "specific intent" to "destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,
racial or religious group as such" on the basis of their identity. The
prosecutor had argued that the government specifically tried to exterminate
three ethnic groups - the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups in Darfur - and that
even after driving them of their lands and killing many people, armed militias
continued their genocidal campaign by raping and impregnating the women in the
refugee camps to further damage the groups.
The court's statement said that the crimes took place during a five-year
campaign beginning in 2003 against rebel organizations in Darfur that opposed
the government in Khartoum. The campaign, the court said, was the result of a
plan agreed upon at the highest level of the government.
Violence has continued in Darfur. Six women Nobel laureates, three of whom have
visited Darfur, said in a statement that while they were encouraged by the
court's work, they "remain deeply concerned by ongoing attacks against aid
workers in government-controlled towns, continued use of rape as a tactic of
war, and obstructions to international efforts to resolve the conflict."
"The situation in Darfur is still desperate, after almost six years of armed
conflict," said the statement by the women: Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan
Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai.
The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders said Wednesday it had
pulled its expatriate staff out of Darfur after the Sudanese government ordered
them to leave. The government told them it would no longer be able to assure
their safety after the ruling, the organization said on its Web site.
The arrest warrant is likely to further complicate the international debate
over how to solve the crisis in Darfur. It came despite concerns voiced by UN
diplomats, the African Union, the Arab League, and some humanitarian
organizations that such a move could provoke renewed violence in the country
and put at risk the pivotal peace deal that ended an even more deadly civil war
in southern Sudan.
"I am sure there will be some crowd movements, there will be some violence here
and there," said Alain Le Roy, the UN under secretary general for peacekeeping
Further, he said, some of the groups that have become involved in the conflict,
including the government of Chad, might take the opportunity to foment
violence. Delays in deploying UN peacekeeping troops to Darfur, with only about
64 percent of the force in place, could increase.
Le Roy said that Sudan had reassured the UN officials that the government would
respect its commitment to protect the peacekeeping missions.
Some analysts and activists argued that the warrant could undermine Bashir's
political position at home.
Nick Grono, deputy president of the International Crisis Group, wrote recently
that "although Mr. Bashir and his security apparatus are still entrenched in
power, the indictment is likely to weaken their hold. It may even cause the
army and intelligence agencies, the ultimate wielders of power, to contemplate
a future without Bashir."
There is, however, the possibility that Sudanese resentment of the court's
actions could rally the nation to his side. After the court's prosecutor first
announced that he was seeking a warrant for Bashir, some of the president's
political enemies closed ranks behind him.
Some figures in the government have threatened bloodshed in response to an
indictment. Salah Gosh, the head of Sudanese intelligence, was quoted in
Sudanese press reports as calling for the "amputation of the hands and the
slitting of the throats of any person who dares badmouth al-Bashir or support
the International Criminal Court's allegations against him."
The court issued warrants for two Sudanese citizens in 2007 in connection with
the bloodshed and humanitarian disaster of Darfur. The two men are Ahmad
Muhammad Harun, a former security official, now a government minister, and Ali
Kushayb, a former militia leader. Judges said that there were reasonable
grounds to conclude that they were responsible for torture, mass rape and the
forced displacement of entire villages in Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Neither has
The UN Security Council can postpone action against Bashir and even stop a
trial. But on the eve of the ruling, the council remained largely divided over
how to react. Sudan's supporters, including the African Union and Arab League,
called again Tuesday for the council to invoke Article 16 of the statute
creating the court which allows it to suspend any indictment. But France,
Britain or the United States would likely use their veto to block such a move.
Sudanese and other African officials have criticized the court as a
neo-colonial tool that so far has singled out Africa. But court officials point
out at three of the four criminal investigations under way at the court,
involving Congo, Central African Republic and Uganda, were all brought by the
governments of those countries themselves, while the case of Sudan was referred
to the prosecutor by the Security Council.
Neil MacFarquhar and Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York, and
Waleed Arafat from Khartoum.