By Colum Lynch and Nora Boustany
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 11, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, July 10 -- The chief prosecutor of the Internationals Criminal Court will seek an arrest warrant Monday for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charging him with genocide and crimes against humanity in the orchestration of a campaign of violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the nation's Darfur region during the past five years, according to U.N. officials and diplomats.
The action by the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, will mark the first time that the tribunal in The Hague charges a sitting head of state with such crimes, and represents a major step by the court to implicate the highest levels of the Sudanese government for the atrocities in Darfur.
Some U.N. officials raised concerns Thursday that the decision would complicate the peace process in Darfur, possibly triggering a military response by Sudanese forces or proxies against the nearly 10,000 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers located there. At least seven peacekeepers were killed and 22 were injured Tuesday during an ambush by a well-organized and unidentified armed group.
Representatives from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- met with U.N. officials Thursday to discuss the safety of peacekeepers in Darfur. U.N. military planners have begun moving peacekeepers to safer locations and are distributing food and equipment in case the Sudanese government cuts off supplies.
"All bets are off; anything could happen," said one U.N. official, adding that circumstantial evidence shows that the government of Sudan orchestrated this week's ambush. "The mission is so fragile, it would not take much for the whole thing to come crashing down."
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, said rebels are responsible for the attack on U.N. peacekeepers, and insisted that Sudanese forces will not retaliate against foreign peacekeepers. However, he warned that the announcement of charges against Bashir or other senior officials would "destroy" international efforts to reach a peace settlement in Darfur.
"Ocampo is playing with fire," Mohamad said. "If the United Nations is serious about its engagement with Sudan, it should tell this man to suspend what he is doing with this so-called indictment. There will be grave repercussions."
Bashir has been at the center of international efforts to seek a political solution to the crisis. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Bush have routinely reached out to Bashir on issues such as counterterrorism and the deployment of peacekeepers. Bush envoys have met regularly with Bashir, and former envoy Andrew S. Natsios delivered a missive from Bush to the Sudanese leader in March 2007 urging him to allow more U.N. and African peacekeepers in Darfur.
"I will present my case and my evidence to the [ICC] judges, and they will take two to three months to decide," Moreno-Ocampo said in an interview Wednesday, referring to a pretrial panel made up of judges from Brazil, Ghana and Latvia. "We will request a warrant of arrest, and the judges have to evaluate the evidence." On Thursday, Moreno-Ocampo's office said in a statement that the prosecutor will "summarize the evidence, the crimes and name individual(s) charged" at a news conference Monday in The Hague.
The ICC does not issue formal indictments, but simply presents its charges to the pretrial chamber and asks it to issue an arrest warrant for a suspect.
Moreno-Ocampo has charged at least 11 people since 2004 -- in countries including Congo, Sudan, Uganda and the Central African Republic -- and the pretrial chamber has never refused a public request for an arrest warrant.
The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when two rebel groups attacked Sudan's Islamic government, claiming a pattern of bias against the region's black African tribes. Khartoum organized a local Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, and conducted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that has left more than 300,000 people dead and has driven more than 2 million more from their homes. The Bush administration accused the government of genocide.
Officials familiar with Moreno-Ocampo's investigation said Bashir is unlikely to surrender to the ICC anytime soon. The leader has refused to release to the court two other Sudanese nationals indicted in April 2007, even appointing one of them, Ahmed Haroun, to oversee international peacekeepers and humanitarian relief efforts.
The Bush administration has long opposed the International Criminal Court, fearing it would conduct frivolous investigations of alleged crimes by U.S. service members. But the United States allowed the Security Council to authorize the court to investigate war crimes in Darfur.
Critics of Moreno-Ocampo, including some inside the United Nations, said an arrest warrant may undercut international efforts to negotiate a political settlement between Khartoum and Darfur's rebel groups. But ICC supporters counter that Bashir has never been committed to a political settlement and that he will respond only to tough measures.
"Bashir will certainly use the indictment to justify some awful reactions, such as humanitarian aid restrictions and further barriers" to the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, said John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, an initiative to end crimes against humanity. "But if the international community stands firm and makes it clear that these kinds of responses will only make matters worse for Bashir . . . then he will relent."
ICC advocates contend that such court actions contribute to peace efforts. Previous indictments of world leaders -- such as former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and former Liberian president Charles Taylor -- by other U.N. tribunals have ultimately contributed to stability in those countries, said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice office at Human Rights Watch.
"I would never belittle the potential dangers" of such international prosecutions," Dicker said. "It is the prosecutor's job, however, to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of the people in high positions, he investigates. . . . Will it be controversial? You bet. What is at stake here is limiting the impunity of those associated with these horrific events in Darfur since 2003."
Boustany reported from Washington. Correspondent Stephanie McCrummen in Nairobi contributed to this report.