Wednesday, March 4, 2009



Today, March 04, 2009

The International Criminal Court was to announce on Wednesday whether it will issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of masterminding genocide in Darfur - amid fears it could provoke a violent backlash.

The chief prosecutor says dozens of witnesses will testify that al-Bashir controlled a genocidal campaign aimed at wiping out three ethnic African tribes in the vast nation south of Egypt.

"We have strong evidence against Mr Bashir," prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said Tuesday. "More than 30 witnesses will (testify) how he managed to control everything and we have strong evidence of his intention."

An arrest warrant for al-Bashir would be a milestone for the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, which started work in 2002 and has never before ordered the arrest of a sitting head of state.

It would also put him alongside the likes of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor as heads of state indicted for war crimes while in office. Both of them were forced from power and ended up on trial at international tribunals in The Hague.

In a show of defiance Tuesday, al-Bashir danced for cheering supporters at a rally in northern Sudan where an effigy of Moreno Ocampo was gleefully torched.

"They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it," al-Bashir said, using a common Arabic insult meant to show extreme disrespect.

The war in Darfur began in 2003, when rebel ethnic African groups took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum complaining of discrimination and neglect.

UN officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes.

The Security Council asked Moreno Ocampo to investigate crimes in Sudan's western Darfur region in 2005.

Moreno Ocampo has asked for arrest warrants on 10 charges including genocide, murder, torture, extermination and rape. He said Sudanese troops and the Janjaweed Arab militia they support murdered civilians and continued to prey on them even in refugee camps.

He says the militia supported by al-Bashir's government also has engaged in a systematic campaign of rape to drive women into the desert where they die of starvation.

If the warrant is issued, questions still remain over who will arrest al-Bashir, who seized power in a coup nearly 20 years ago.

Sudanese authorities refuse to turn over suspects, the court has no police force and thousands of UN and African Union peacekeepers protecting civilians in Darfur and safeguarding a fragile peace in Sudan's semiautonomous south are not mandated to detain him.

A top UN official said this week that peacekeepers are prepared for a violent reaction if any warrants are issued.

"I'm sure there will be some crowd movements. There will be some violence," UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said.

The Rome statute that set up the International Criminal Court allows the UN Security Council, under Article 16, to pass a resolution to defer or suspend for a year the investigation or prosecution of a case.

It also gives the council authority to renew such a resolution.

The African Union and the Arab League have been lobbying the 15 members of the U.N.'s most powerful body to use Article 16 to delay the arrest of al-Bashir if the court issues a warrant so that UN and AU efforts to bring an end to the six-year conflict can continue without any disruption.

But the Security Council is deeply divided on whether to seek a yearlong delay if the international court issues a warrant for al-Bashir's arrest, and is not expected to have any immediate reaction to Wednesday's announcement by the tribunal's judges, Libya's acting UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who is the current council president, told a news conference on Tuesday.

"Certainly the council is still divided on this issue," Dabbashi said. "There is nothing scheduled by the council as an immediate reaction to the decision of the ICC. ... In fact, there is no negotiations on Article 16."

The five permanent Security Council members, who have veto power, are divided on the issue. The U.S., France and Britain oppose a delay, while Russia and China, which has strong economic ties to Sudan, would likely support one, council diplomats said.