THE HAGUE (New York Times)–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 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 warran’s for sitting presidents, including Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia.
Sudan, which has long vowed to defy the court, denounced the warrant and almost immediately began curtailing the activities of Western aid groups working in the country.
“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.”
Shortly after the warrant was issued, Oxfam said the Sudanese government revoked its license to operate, a decision the group said could affect more than 600,000 people, most of them suffering from the conflict in Darfur. Similarly, Doctors Without Borders said its Dutch section was expelled by the government from Darfur.
Beyond that, aid workers said that the government had revoked the licenses or significantly curtailed the operations of at least four other international humanitarian groups working in the country.
Within minutes of the court’s announcement, thousands of people gathered in central Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, waving national flags and posters showing the Mr. Bashir’s face and denouncing the court’s decision.
But many 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,” Ms. 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.”
The criminal court judges took more than seven months to examine the evidence on Mr. 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 pillaging.
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 Mr. Bashir to justice.
Under the rules of the United Nations charter and Security Council, Sudan is legally obliged to arrest Mr. 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 United Nations peacekeepers currently operating in Sudan have no mandate to detain war crimes suspects.
Ambassador 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 governmen’s, 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 United Nations 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 movemen’s, there will be some violence here and there,” said Alain Le Roy, the United Nations under secretary general for peacekeeping operations.
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 United Nations peacekeeping troops to Darfur, with only about 64 percent of the force in place, could increase.
Mr. Le Roy said that Sudan had reassured the United Nations officials that the government would respect its commitment to protect the peacekeeping missions.
Some analysts and activists argued that the warrant could undermine Mr. 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 Mr. Bashir, some of the president’s political enemies closed ran’s 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 warran’s 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 been arrested.
The United Nations Security Council can postpone action against Mr. 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 governmen’s of those countries themselves, while the case of Sudan was referred to the prosecutor by the Security Council.