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feature story - Court Approves Warrant for Sudan's President

february 11th, 2009

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February 11, 2009

Court Approves Warrant for Sudan’s President

By Marlise Simons and Neil MacFarquhar

The Hague

Judges at the International Criminal Court have decided to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, brushing aside diplomatic requests to allow more time for peace negotiations in the conflict-riddled Darfur region of his country, according to court lawyers and diplomats.

It is the first time the court has sought the detention of a sitting head of state since opening its doors in 2002, and could further complicate the tense, international debate over how to solve the crisis in Darfur.

Ever since international prosecutors began seeking an arrest warrant last year, opponents have pressed the United Nations Security Council to use its power to suspend the proceedings. But a majority of council members have argued that the case should go forward, saying Mr. Bashir has not done enough to stop the bloodshed in Darfur to deserve a reprieve.

Many African and Arab nations counter that issuing a warrant for Mr. Bashir’s arrest could backfire, diminishing Sudan’s willingness to compromise for the sake of peace. Others, including some United Nations officials, worry that a warrant could inspire reprisal attacks against civilians, aid groups or the thousands of international peacekeepers deployed there.

The precise charges cited by the judges against Mr. Bashir have not been disclosed. But when the court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested an arrest warrant in July, he said he had evidence to support charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to a military campaign that “purposefully targeted civilians” and had been “masterminded” by Mr. Bashir.

The decision to issue a warrant against him, reached by a panel of judges in The Hague, has been conveyed to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and is expected to be formally announced at the court in the coming days, officials at the United Nations said.

Lawyers familiar with the case said the court had already sought to freeze the president’s assets, but had found his possessions to be hidden behind other names.

The prosecutor became involved in the case after the Security Council requested him to investigate the conflict in Darfur, where massacres, disease and starvation have led to the death of up to 300,000 people and to the suffering of millions who have been driven from their homes.

Although there has been sporadic fighting in Darfur for decades, the conflict significantly intensified in 2003, when rebel groups demanding greater autonomy for the region attacked Sudanese forces. The Arab-led government responded with a ferocious counter-insurgency campaign, which the court’s prosecutor called a genocidal strategy against Darfur’s black African ethnic groups.

Relations between the Secretary General and the Sudanese president continue to be strained by Sudanese government actions in Darfur and by Mr. Ban’s refusal to deal with him directly.

But on Sunday the two men had an unscheduled encounter at a summit in Ethiopia. Diplomats familiar with the event variously described it as “a stormy meeting” and “a shouting match” in which the Sudanese president vented his anger at the court and the secretary general insisted on his concerns for the safety of United Nations staff and peacekeepers in Sudan.

The prospect of an international arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir has already caused a diplomatic storm, with the African Union and members from the Arab League asking the Security Council to exercise its right to postpone any moves against the president for a year, arguing there were still prospects that he might help bring a settlement in Darfur.

There is also broad concern that removing Mr. Bashir from power could threaten a landmark peace treaty between the Sudanese government and rebels in the southern part of the country. The treaty was signed in 2005 to end a civil war between the north and south in which 2.2 million people died, far more than in Darfur.

Mr. Bashir fought against entrenched members of his own party to approve that peace deal, and it is widely seen as critical to holding the deeply divided country together.

LINK: "Court Approves Warrant for Sudan's President" (NY Times)

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