Tensions Mount as Sudan Awaits Int’l Court Ruling
March 3, 2009 - 4:58 AMAn arrest warrant for Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, which may come on Wednesday, would be the first against a sitting head of state since the International Criminal Court was established in 2002.
Khartoum has pledged to protect United Nations and diplomatic missions in the country, but some officials have warned about not being able to forecast or control popular reactions to the ICC decision.
Provocative statements from some senior figures and rumors of impending violence are adding to the tensions.
The government has said that while peaceful protests against the ICC would be acceptable, it would crack down on any “subversive” action supporting the court. Top officials in the feared National Intelligence Service have also warned that anyone found to have had contacts with the ICC would face legal action.
ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo last July submitted a request to the tribunal’s judges, accusing Bashir of genocide, crimes against the humanity and war crimes targeting African tribes in Darfur.
Since fighting broke out between Darfurian rebels and the Arab-dominated government and allied militias in 2003, up to 300,000 people have died, according to U.N. estimates.
In his case against Bashir, Moreno-Ocampo accused his forces and agents of directly killing at least 35,000 civilians, and of being responsible for creating conditions resulting in the “slow death” of a further 80,000-265,000 people.
The ICC’s pre-trial judges’ decision will be announced at a press conference in The Hague on Wednesday afternoon. An arrest warrant for Bashir would be the first against a sitting head of state since the ICC was established in 2002.
The combined African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission known as UNAMID has reportedly raised its security level ahead of the ICC announcement. UNAMID senior officials traveled to Darfur on Monday to discuss security concerns with officials in the war-ravaged region.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain le Roy told a press conference Monday he expected “some violence here and there” after the ICC decision is announced.
“What we don’t know is the level of violence,” he said. “We hope the government of Sudan will act responsibly to make sure that all beginning of violence will be stopped in due time.”
In London, officials from one of the Darfur rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), claimed to have received reliable information about plans by Sudan’s paramilitary Popular Defense Force to spread chaos and attack those viewed as ICC supporters in the event of a decision against Bashir.
The Popular Defense Force is a militia established soon after Bashir seized power in a military coup in 1989, and linked to the ruling party.
JEM said the plan was laid out during a weekend meeting of the militia in Khartoum, led by a government minister.
It also quoted National Intelligence Service chief Salah Gosh as warning Sudanese who support the ICC that they would have their hands and heads cut off, adding that “those who misbehave can only blame themselves.”
The rebels’ claims could not be verified, but the Sudan Tribune news site also cited Gosh as making threats.
“Our message to those who stand behind the ICC is that we were Islamic extremists, then became moderate and civilized, believing in peace and life for everyone,” it quoted him as saying. “However we will revert back to how we were if necessary. There is nothing any easier than that.”
Addressing supporters at a rally Sunday, Bashir accused the ICC of ignoring “the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Gaza, and the crimes committed in the prisons of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.”
The National Congress Party (NCP) – the ruling party formerly known as the National Islamic Front – declared it would respond to an arrest warrant by demonstrating to the world that it would not allow interference in Sudan’s internal affairs.
NCP official Mohamed Al-Amin said he did not expect Sudan to be isolated, even by countries which support the ICC, as a result of the court’s decision – an apparent reference to African nations which back the ICC but have criticized its stance on Bashir.
Of the 108 countries that are members of the court, having ratified its establishing statute, the regional group with the largest representation is Africa, with 30 members.
But criticism has grown in Africa over a perceived bias. ICC prosecutors have opened investigations into just four situations, all in Africa – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Darfur.
U.N., U.S. blamed
Although the Netherlands-based ICC operates independently of the U.N., the two institutions cooperate closely, and for many Bashir supporters the distinctions are blurred, not least of all because the situation in Darfur was referred to the ICC by the U.N. Security Council.
As a result, much of the anger about the ICC investigation is directed at the U.N.
A pro-government newspaper caused a stir by reporting that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, had acknowledged cooperating with the ICC.
The U.N. Mission in Sudan denied that Qazi had made any such statement and demanded an apology from the paper. Unnamed Sudanese officials meanwhile said Qazi may be expelled. Khartoum in 2006 expelled a previous U.N. special envoy, Jan Pronk.
Western countries are also viewed with deep suspicion, and Khartoum regularly accuses the ICC of being used as a tool of foreign countries wanting to destabilize Sudan.
The semi-official Sudan Media Center on Monday cited an unnamed “high ranking diplomat” as blaming the U.S. for the ICC situation, saying the U.S. has long wanted to nudge Bashir aside.
It’s not clear exactly how an arrest warrant would be acted upon. Le Roy said enforcing it was not in the U.N. peacekeepers’ mandate.
The European Union last July committed its member to enforcing all ICC arrest warrants, but countries in other regions have not made similar pledges.
Last month, Arab diplomats at the U.N. told the Al-Hayat daily that some Arab states were weighing offering Bashir safe haven in return for protection from judicial prosecution, should the need arise.
Khartoum has rallied support from African, Arab and Islamic nations, which say a criminal case against Bashir will lead to greater destabilization of the country and the entire region.
They are urging the U.N. Security Council to invoke an article of the ICC’s founding statute that allows it to defer, for renewable 12-month periods, any prosecution by the court.
So far, however, there is no sign that the move will get the required majority of nine votes in the 15-member council, as well as no use of veto by a permanent member.
In the U.S., Darfur activists are planning rallies in response to the ICC decision outside the U.N. headquarters on Wednesday and at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC on Thursday.