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War crimes suspect has free rein in Darfur

Ahmad Harun, accused of recruiting militias who ravaged villages, is Sudan's minister of state for humanitarian affairs.

August 05, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

EL FASHER, SUDAN — For a man accused of masterminding massacres, Ahmad Harun seems quite comfortable in the place he allegedly helped destroy.

He strolls around the grassy compound belonging to the local governor in Sudan's deeply troubled Darfur region, embracing Arab tribal leaders, soldiers and officials who have come to hear the president.

Harun, a tall 42-year-old with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, was in charge of the region's security during the height of the violent attacks on farm villages that caused millions to flee their homes in 2003 and 2004. He allegedly recruited, funded and armed local militias to root out rebels who had attacked the Sudanese army, sweeping away their villages, families and the intricate fabric of Darfur's identity along the way.

He publicly relished his command, telling an open meeting of hundreds of officials, tribesmen and soldiers in West Darfur in July 2003 that he had been given "the power and authority to kill or forgive whoever in Darfur."

The rebels are like fish, Harun told a Sudanese committee that was investigating alleged war crimes in 2004, and "the villages are like water to fish." The objective, he suggested, was to eliminate the water.

And yet, on this day three years later, Harun glides unhindered and unapologetic through the parched remains of Darfur. In fact, he is the minister of state for humanitarian affairs in charge of caring for the very people he is accused of displacing. That he holds such a post says much about the limits of international power to cope with a festering crisis.

In May, the Hague-based International Criminal Court charged him and a pro-government militia leader, Ali Mohammed Ali Abdalrahman, better known as Ali Kushayb, with war crimes and crimes against humanity. But Sudan has rejected the arrest warrants, saying that the country is not a signatory to the court and that the charges against Harun are false.

Instead of being put behind bars, as the court asked, Harun still has the power to decide who lives and dies in Darfur. And without Sudan's cooperation, there is almost nothing the court can do to bring him to justice.

"It is absolutely unacceptable," complained chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, whose team carefully built the case against Harun through interviews with refugees, tribal leaders, colleagues and enemies.

"Harun has to be removed from office, arrested and sent to the court," Moreno-Ocampo said in an interview. "Allowing him to be the humanitarian minister is like putting the fox in front of the chickens."

The trouble, experts say, is that asking the government to hand him over is asking it to indict itself. And charging those with the true responsibility for Darfur means targeting the only ones able to guarantee peace: the president and vice president.

"Harun has been interrogated about the allegations, and there is no case," said Interior Minister Zubeir Bashir Taha, a senior Cabinet minister who also oversees Darfur. "The evidence does not stand scrutiny, and whether it does or not, it is a matter for Sudan to decide and act upon. The prosecutor has no jurisdiction here. He is an intruder."

Further, Moreno-Ocampo's desire for swift justice competes with the aims of other U.N. bodies trying to bring peace to Darfur. The Security Council can demand that Khartoum make the arrests or face sanctions, but it is also trying to gain the government's acceptance of a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force for Darfur as well as its cooperation in peace talks.

So the court must rely on the government of Sudan to surrender Harun unless the Security Council were to order U.N. officials to arrest him -- a move likely to get U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers tossed out of the country.

The choice does not have to be between peace or justice. The two are intertwined -- but perhaps the most effective tool is time, Moreno-Ocampo says. He has translated the indictment into Arabic, in a booklet to take with him on his rounds of neighboring countries, explaining the court and drumming up support to keep an eye on Harun. Sooner or later, Moreno-Ocampo says, circumstances will change or Harun will make a misstep.

"This is normal, this is the process, it will take time," he says. "I don't know if it will take months or years, but Harun's destiny is the court."

That's not Harun's view. Clad in a khaki safari suit that keeps him cool in the 100-degree Darfur heat, Harun wears his knowledge of the court's impotence like armor.

"Who gave the ICC this right?" he asks. "It is a matter of politics. It is not an issue of justice."

He denies the allegations that he worked with the militias known as janjaweed to attack villages, and says that he will never go to The Hague to answer the charges. "We are not signatories" to the court, and neither is the United States, he says.

"When you sign, we are going to follow. You go first," he says with a high-pitched guffaw.

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