Global Policy Forum

Sudanese President Accused of Genocide


By Marlise Simons and Jeffrey Gettleman

New York Times
July 15, 2008

The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court on Monday formally requested an arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the last five years of bloodshed in his country's Darfur region.

Announcing the request, the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said that Mr. Bashir "masterminded and implemented" a plan to destroy the three main ethnic groups in Darfur, the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. "His motives were largely political," the prosecutor said. "His alibi was a 'counterinsurgency. His intent was genocide." Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, of Argentina, charged that, having failed to defeat a rebellion, the Sudanese president turned against civilians. "Al-Bashir organized the destitution, insecurity and harassment of the survivors," he said. "He did not need bullets. He used other weapons: rapes, hunger and fear. As efficient, but silent."

At a news conference at the court in The Hague in the Netherlands, he said that he handed over his evidence on Monday morning to the three judges who will decide whether to issue an arrest warrant. An answer to the request is expected in the fall, lawyers at the court said. But if the past is any guidance, the judges will probably sign the arrest warrant. They have signed all 11 warrants the prosecutor has requested since he took office five years ago.

Genocide charges are the gravest any court can bring, and the prosecutor is expected to implicate others at the top of the Sudanese government.

The action against Mr. Bashir marks the first time the International Criminal Court has brought any charges against a sitting head of state since it opened its doors in 2002. Two other presidents, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia, were both charged by other international war crimes courts while in office. But the request for a warrant against Mr. Bashir, whose regime has repeatedly ignored international requests to stop attacking civilians, seemed unlikely to lead to his arrest in the short term.

Mr. Bashir has scoffed at two arrest warrants the court has already issued against two other Sudanese officials, even promoting one of them to minister of humanitarian affairs. The government of Sudan immediately rejected the accusations and said it would fight the charges through legal means. "We will resist this," said Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. "Everybody in Sudan - the government, the people, even the opposition parties - are against this."

He argued that Mr. Bashir was innocent and that the international court was "a stooge" for Sudan's enemies. He said the government was appointing a team of African and Arab lawyers to handle the case, and made it clear that the government would not vent its outrage on the thousands of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers in Sudan or aid workers. "Nothing will happen to the U.N. because of this," he said. "We will handle this with our legal advocates."

A key question is whether the United Nations Security Council will intervene in this case. The council itself in 2005 asked the court to investigate the Darfur crisis, but it has the authority to suspend an investigation or prosecution for a one-year period. Since the prosecutor notified United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week of his plan to bring charges against Mr. Bashir, council members have met privately, with China and Russia warning that a direct move against the Sudanese president would jeopardize any future peace talks.

In Sudan, United Nations aid workers and peacekeepers worried that seeking a warrant for the president's arrest could hinder their work and prompt reprisals against their personnel. In response, they stepped up security in Darfur, pulling out all but the most essential civilians. Other aid organizations have temporarily evacuated some of their staff from Darfur to the capital, Khartoum. But others have argued the action would provide a new point of leverage to re-start blocked peace talks.

John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who co-founded Enough, a group that seeks to end genocide, dismissed the argument that indicting Mr. Bashir would torpedo the chances for peace in Darfur. "The peace process is dead," he said. "There is no process, and even more importantly, there is no leverage. Suddenly, a new variable has entered the equation in the form of the request for an arrest warrant," he said. "While the I.C.C. judges consider this request over the next two months, there is a new point of major leverage over Bashir." He added: "Everyone knows what the issues are that need to be addressed. What has been missing is leadership and leverage. Suddenly, we have one of the two. Let's see if Washington and Beijing can work together to provide the other."

The prosecutor, in a interview before his announcement, said he was aware that some diplomats and commentators wanted him to delay his action, arguing that peace was more important at this point than justice. But he seemed undeterred. "Some people have said that for me to intervene at this point is shocking," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I say what is going on now is shocking. Genocide is going on now and it is endangering the lives of many more people." At first, the prosecutor said, the government attacked from the air, and used militia on the ground to destroy villages. "Now the attacks are on the refugee camps," he said. "And the government is hindering humanitarian aid as part of its plan."

In a ten-page summary provided Monday, the prosecutor laid out the case, drawing a tough portrait of Mr. Bashir's actions and seeking to show his personal responsibility for crimes committed in Darfur since 2003 until today. The prosecution says it has tracked all the known attacks between 2003 and 2008, outlining the government's genocidal strategy to attack the towns and villages of the people from the tribes, while sparing those from other tribes considered aligned with the government.

The prosecutor's charges include three counts of genocide for killing members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups; five counts of crimes against humanity for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape; and two counts of war crimes for attacks on civilian populations in Darfur and for pillaging towns and villages.

To obtain an arrest order, the prosecutor must provide credible information, but not prove the crimes as he would have in order to obtain a conviction at trial. But Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said he had "very strong evidence that al-Bashir controlled everything, the generals, the intelligence, the ministers, the media. The janjaweed militia called him directly for instructions." Lawyers close to the court said that Western governments, under the continuing pressure of public opinion, may have assisted with the investigation - providing intelligence such as aerial surveys and electronic eavesdropping. "It is obvious that something must be done, the peace process has stalled and the humanitarian disaster only keeps growing," a European diplomat said.

Peacekeepers in the region, there as part of a hybrid United Nations and African Union force, are particularly vulnerable to government retaliation, diplomats and analysts say. For months before their deployment, the Sudanese government had resisted merging a weak and under-equipped African Union mission with a United Nations force, arguing that United Nations troops would simply be used to execute arrest warrants for the international court.

Seven peacekeepers were killed in an ambush last week, and the force has been struggling to simply protect itself. In the vast, restive camps of displaced people in Darfur, there has been support for the international court. But Julie Flint, an independent researcher who has written extensively about Darfur, said that protests within the camps would likely provoke a harsh response from Sudanese security forces. "The camps are my biggest worry," Ms. Flint said. "They could explode into violence."

Even if the government of Sudan did not retaliate violently against to the announcement, it could make life harder for the displaced people of Darfur and the people trying to help them "in a thousand ways," Ms. Flint said. "They can slow down permits. Make visas impossible to get. They can make an already difficult job impossible." The government has made no secret of its desire to see displaced people in Darfur leave the sprawling camps that are home to 2 million of people whose villages were attacked in the conflict. "There is a great deal of concern that the camps will be vulnerable in this period," said one senior aid official in Sudan, speaking anonymously to avoid retribution. "The government has been looking for a reason to shut them down."

More Information on International Justice
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More Information on Sudan/Darfur
More Information on the ICC


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