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Sudan's President Bashir charged with war crimes

The International Criminal Court charges Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. But judges drop charges of genocide.

March 05, 2009|Edmund Sanders

KHARTOUM, SUDAN — In a challenge to one of Africa's most defiant strongmen, the International Criminal Court on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president on charges of war crimes in Darfur, a quest for justice that immediately complicated relief efforts for hundreds of thousands of people and raised the specter of more violence.

A three-judge panel found that President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir "intentionally directed attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians and pillaging their property," ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said.

Within minutes of the court's announcement, thousands of Bashir supporters poured into the streets of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, carrying banners condemning the U.S. and ICC.

About the same time in Darfur, several displacement camps erupted in celebrations, despite a strong show of force earlier in the day by Sudanese soldiers, United Nations officials said.

Government officials reiterated their refusal to turn over Bashir to the court, which they consider a tool of the U.S. and Europe.

"We will not be humiliated by the international community," said Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein. "This is just another attempt to destroy Sudan."

Experts said the court's legal action could result in renewed bloodshed in the country and further interfere with efforts to stop the violence and suffering in Darfur. Several humanitarian organizations said after the announcement that the Sudanese government had revoked their licenses to operate, and Doctors Without Borders said it was ordered to evacuate staffers from four Darfur towns because of security concerns.

U.N. agencies and foreign embassies in Sudan remained on high alert amid rumors that militias, both for and against the government, might use the announcement as an opportunity to attack foreigners or government institutions.

Bashir was expected to address the country at a giant rally this morning.

In the much-anticipated ruling, ICC judges accused Bashir of seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from his government's counterinsurgency campaign in the nation's western region of Darfur.

Charges of genocide -- which the U.S. alleges has taken place in Darfur -- were dropped by the judges for lack of evidence. According to the court, 35,000 people were killed in Darfur and at least an additional 100,000 died from disease and starvation. More than 2.5 million remain homeless.

The United States is not a signatory to the ICC, but State Department officials said the arrest warrant "can be a helpful step" in resolving the crisis.

The Obama administration urged restraint by all parties to avoid further violence. A spokesman said President Obama supports efforts to help displaced people.

Human rights activists heralded the ICC decision as a victory against impunity.

"This message should be heard loudly and clearly around the globe: If you kill, maim and rape your own citizens, there will be a cost," said John Norris, executive director of the anti-genocide group Enough Project.

There was no consensus on whether Bashir would be damaged, or strengthened, by the charges.

Bashir will keep his job, predicted Eltayeb Hag Ateya of the Peace Studies Institute in Khartoum, because Sudan's ruling party is unprepared to select a replacement and many worry the country could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or the military.

"Bashir will not be able to continue as a normal president for long," Ateya said. "He'll become a burden to everyone around him and this will snowball, leaving him crippled.

"The real issue is not Bashir," Ateya said. "It's the succession question."

U.S. and European officials are hoping the warrant will either force Bashir to make reforms or drive him from power. But political experts here say such hopes are misplaced.

"It's wishful thinking," said Alfred Taban, editor of an opposition newspaper. "If anything, the ICC is going to entrench Bashir rather than weaken him."

On Tuesday, Bashir, 65, who seized power in a 1989 coup, struck a defiant tone at the opening of the $2-billion Merowe Dam, which he boasted was built without help from the Western world. Dancing, smiling and waving his walking stick, Bashir said the international community could take the arrest warrant, "dissolve it in water, and drink it."

His government has silenced most opponents, either through payoffs or intimidation, diplomats said. The ICC has also stirred nationalist and anti-Western sentiments, with many Sudanese, even those against Bashir, viewing the case as an attack on the country's sovereignty.

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