Sudan Ousts Aid Groups After Court Pursues President

Sudan's president says an international tribunal's decision to seek his arrest on war crimes charges is a conspiracy against his country but will not stop him from continuing his work. Thousands rallied in support of Omar al-Bashir Thursday. Video by AP
By Stephanie McCrummen and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009

NAIROBI, March 4 -- Reacting swiftly to the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the government of Sudan on Wednesday expelled at least 10 foreign aid groups that provide food, water, medical care and other assistance to more than a million displaced people in the western Darfur region, according to U.N. officials and aid workers.

The groups include Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, CARE International and others that collectively handle 60 percent of humanitarian assistance in Darfur, where the largest relief effort in the world has reversed a dangerous rise in the level of malnutrition and disease among people stranded in refugee camps. Some groups were given 24 hours to leave; others were told that the safety of their staffs could no longer be guaranteed.

"It's alarming," said a U.N. official in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, who was not authorized to speak publicly because of security concerns. "The humanitarian impact of this is massive."

The expulsions were part of the Sudanese government's dismissive response to charges that Bashir used the instruments of state to direct the mass murder of tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians in Darfur during the past six years. He is the first sitting head of state to be charged by the Hague-based court.

On Tuesday, Bashir said the court could "eat" its arrest warrant. Within minutes of its announcement Wednesday, hundreds of people poured into the streets of Khartoum in a protest that was probably orchestrated by a government that exerts tight control over the city.

The Khartoum offices of several Sudanese human rights groups were raided, and Bashir -- who enjoys support from many African leaders concerned about their own rights records -- promised a "million man march" Thursday.

"Indeed, today is a day of national anger and national outrage," said Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, calling the ICC decision a "criminal act." He said: "It is an affront and an insult to the nation, and it is meant to be a recipe for disaster and disunity and instability in the country."

Some political insiders in Khartoum with no great love for Bashir opposed the court's decision, noting that Sudan was simply following the lead of the United States, which is not a signatory to the court.

"The American government said it was not ready to send any American citizen to the court," said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer in Khartoum. "So we are just following the steps of our beloved Americans."

With its decision, the three-judge panel upheld a request by the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to charge Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The judges ruled that there was not enough evidence to charge Bashir with directing a genocide but noted that the genocide charge could be pursued later if Ocampo obtained new evidence.

The Sudanese government never allowed the prosecutor inside Darfur to investigate.

At a news conference at the court's headquarters in the Netherlands, spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said Bashir fully controlled the country's security apparatus as it carried out a brutal counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels who took up arms against Sudan's leaders in February 2003, citing a history of discrimination against the region's black African tribes.

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