Sudan’s leader slipped out of South Africa on Monday in defiance of a court-ordered travel ban while judges reviewed an arrest order from the International Criminal Court.
After six years of evading the ICC’s arrest warrant, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s dramatic exit from Johannesburg again dashed hopes that one of the world’s most controversial leaders would finally have his day in court. The ICC, based in The Hague, has charged Bashir with carrying out a genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, where as many as 300,000 people have died and about 2 million displaced since 2003, according to the United Nations.
But by Monday evening, Bashir was back in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, raising a stick in the air as he exited his plane. A crowd at the airport welcomed him with cheers.
Human rights advocates expressed consternation that South Africa, a member of the ICC, would let Bashir escape. But South Africa’s ruling party appeared intent on avoiding a confrontation with other African leaders, who deplore the ICC as a Western, neocolonial instrument. Despite the arrest warrant, Bashir has managed to travel much of the world, including to Chad, another ICC member, underlining the inability of the international legal system to enforce its arrest warrants.
On Sunday, a judge in South Africa ruled that Bashir — who was in Johannesburg for an African Union summit — must remain in the country while judicial officials studied the ICC arrest order. Bashir boarded a private jet just hours before a high court ruled in favor of his arrest, the Associated Press reported.
It was not clear whether South Africa’s leaders and security forces had a role in clearing Bashir’s departure. It also was not known whether authorities there would have carried out his arrest and risked diplomatic rifts across the continent. But the ruling party, the African National Congress, issued a statement condemning the arrest warrant.
“The ANC calls upon government to challenge the order now being brought to compel the South African government to detain President al-Bashir,” the statement said.
The ICC’s reach and jurisdiction are major political issues in Africa, where many allege that the court is biased against African leaders. South Africa’s minister of international affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said this month that diplomatic immunity would apply to all participants at the A.U. gathering.
Bashir has brushed off the charges against him. He says the United Nations and human rights groups have inflated reports of mass atrocities in Darfur. Even as the region again descended into unrest last year, he told The Washington Post that peace there was “getting wider and wider and deeper and deeper.”
South African activists had gone to court to press for the arrest of Bashir, who took power in a 1989 coup. In April, he won reelection in a vote largely boycotted by the opposition, which often faces threats from the regime.
A judge examining the ICC arrest order, Dunstan Mlambo, criticized South African authorities’ failure to keep Bashir in the country while the legal review was underway.
Mlambo expressed “concern” that the court order for Bashir to remain in the country “had not been complied with.”
At the ICC, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said South Africa is obliged as a backer of the court to detain Bashir and hand him over.
In December, the ICC dropped charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta after the prosecution said it had insufficient evidence. Kenyatta was charged in connection with postelection violence that began in 2007, leaving more than 1,000 dead.
Sieff reported from Nairobi.