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Lawyer Tries to Cast Light on the Suffering of Darfur

THE WORLD

The Sudanese human rights activist worries that the region's tragedy has been forgotten. He is documenting atrocities and hoping for justice.

November 12, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — With the end of widespread killings, the troubled Darfur region of Sudan has faded from the world's headlines. And that, says Sudanese lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman, is his country's latest tragedy.

The systematic slayings of hundreds of thousands of rural Darfur people by militias believed to be backed by Sudan's government have stopped, said the activist who represents many survivors. But that is only because an agenda of "ethnic cleansing" has succeeded, he said.

"The international community has forgotten about Darfur," said Osman, a quiet man with watchful eyes. "You do not see us on the front page of your papers, even though in many ways, our suffering is worse than it was a year ago."

Bloody confrontations between rebels and militia forces still flare up, and nearly 2 million displaced people are confined to camps. The militias attack those who try to reclaim their land, he said.

This week, as Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick was in Sudan trying to shore up the country's tenuous peace, Osman was in the U.S. to be honored for his legal aid work and to plead for help in ending the violence and achieving justice.

After nearly three years of systematic bloodshed that U.S. officials called genocide in 2004, stability in the Darfur region remains elusive. The conflict in the western part of the country has festered in the shadow of negotiations to end a separate conflict: Sudan's 21-year-long civil war between the nation's Arab Muslim north and Christian and animist south. A peace agreement between the north and south was finally reached at the beginning of this year, but it is faltering, pushing Darfur further into the background.

Adding to its challenges, Sudan is slated to take over the rotating African Union presidency in January. That will put the Khartoum regime in charge of the 7,000 AU peacekeepers meant to be protecting people in Darfur from militias widely seen as supported by the government.

State Department officials in Washington met Osman this week with sympathy, but little else -- no promises for action or additional support for AU troops. In fact, Congress last week cut $50 million in support for Darfur peacekeeping troops.

In the absence of hope in Darfur, Osman has tried to provide at least a record of alleged war crimes perpetrated against the region's tribes. At most, he offers a chance for justice.

For two decades, Osman defended people who were allegedly arbitrarily detained and tortured by the Sudanese government. After Khartoum responded to rebel attacks in 2003 by systematically cleansing the region of anyone associated with the rebels, suddenly injustice arrived at his own doorstep. Members of his own family, he said, were killed, tortured or burned out of their homes by the militias, which survivors call \o7janjaweed\f7.

And so, his Sudan Organization Against Torture provides legal help, medical aid and psychological counseling to those who were targeted by the militias.

The organization's small legal team is working to have rape prosecuted as a war crime. Under Sudanese law, prosecution of rape requires proof or witnesses -- forcing victims to often settle for lesser charges if the case is heard at all.

"The Sudanese justice system does not work very well," he said in an interview this week at the United Nations. "It is incompetent and unwilling to provide justice. There is impunity for these crimes, and victims have no confidence in the courts."

For his efforts to confront the government, he was imprisoned for more than seven months in 2004 and only released after a long hunger strike and international pressure on Khartoum.

"We are putting crimes on the record," he said. "We're exposing the war criminals who continue to lie about what they're doing. And we're giving some comfort to the victims, who must know that they are not forgotten, that their suffering has been documented."

Someday, his team's efforts may mean even more than that. His interviews with victims, done in coordination with the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch, have been turned over to the International Criminal Court. The prosecutors hold a sealed list of several dozen names of Sudanese officials and militia leaders believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the massive displacement campaign.

But action has stalled, as Sudan and its defenders argue that to start prosecuting officials who sit in the fledgling coalition government would cause the country to crumble into anarchy and war.

Osman, for one, believes that holding leaders accountable is the first step to peace.

"It is not ethical to leave war criminals in power," he said. "We cannot bargain away justice for politics. Two million people are still waiting in camps to go home. We cannot let negotiations come ahead of their lives."

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