By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 11 -- The International Criminal Court's pretrial judges have decided to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region, according to an official at the United Nations.
Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be charged by the Hague-based court with war crimes, and the first Arab leader to face the prospect of being tried for atrocities by an international tribunal. The decision, which was first reported Wednesday night on the New York Times' Web site, is expected to be announced within two weeks.
The judges' decision comes nearly seven months after the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, accused Bashir of directing a campaign of mass murder that has left more than 300,000 civilians dead and driven more than 2.7 million from their homes in Darfur.
The three-judge panel endorsed Moreno-Ocampo's claim that there is sufficient evidence to charge Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes, according to the official, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the case. But the panel rejected Moreno-Ocampo's contention that Bashir has committed genocide. One of the three judges dissented.
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, said that the charges are politically motivated and that his government will never surrender Bashir for prosecution. "This means nothing to us. We are not going to be bothered by it at all," he said in an interview.
Mohamad warned that the court's action may jeopardize political negotiations underway in Doha, Qatar, between Khartoum and two key Darfurian rebel groups and threaten the stability of Africa's largest country. "We can't predict the public outrage of the people. We cannot predict or control that," he said.
The latest violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when two rebel groups attacked Sudanese police stations. Sudan's Islamic government responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that targeted the region's black African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes.
In a recent meeting with Bashir, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan to ensure the protection of thousands of international peacekeepers and aid workers if Bashir is charged.
Human rights activists applauded the court's decision. This "will likely add international legal weight to a long obvious truth -- primary responsibility for the atrocities in Darfur rests with the regime that Bashir heads," the Save Darfur Coalition said in a statement. The group called on governments to bar Bashir from traveling outside Sudan, saying that "individual nations and the international community as a whole cannot continue to do business as usual with Bashir once he is an indicted war criminal."