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War Crimes Trial

March 4, 2009

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has ordered the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in Darfur. That's set to ratchet up tension in the already conflict-torn region.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, right
Al-Bashir has said an ICC arrest warrant would be meaninglessImage: AP

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called upon Sudan to take the court's decision seriously.

"The ICC is the guarantor that serious crimes don't remain unpunished and the victims don't remain unredeemed," Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday, March 4. "I therefore challenge Sudan to respect the decision of the ICC and react in a considerate manner."

Earlier in the day, in announcing their decision, the ICC judges said that al-Bashir should answer for charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sudan's western Darfur region dating back to 2003.

In advance of the judgment, Bashir said any warrant issued by The Hague-based ICC would be worthless.

"It will not be worth the ink it is written in," he told shouting supporters at a mass rally Tuesday.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Khartoum on Wednesday after the arrest warrant was issued.

Presidential advisor Mustafa Osman Ismail told Reuters news agency that the government was not surprised by the ICC's decision and called it "neo-colonialism."

"They do not want Sudan to become stable," he said.

Darfur tension

Many Sudanese believe that the warrant could plunge the country into chaos. Some fear it could embolden rebels in the region to launch further attacks. Darfur's strongest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, has said it would refocus efforts to topple al-Bashir if he failed to cooperate with the ICC.

There are also fears that government forces could launch reprisals against those seen to support the warrant, news agency AFP reported.

"Our guys on the ground feel that there is tension," said an official from the joint UN-African Union (AU) mission in Darfur (UNAMID), who declined to be named. "The Sudanese security forces are much more visible in Darfur."

Chinese UN peacekeepers guard engineers building on a new UN base in Darfur, Sudan
UN-AU mission leadership says troop presence in Darfur will continueImage: AP

Speaking at UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alan Le Roy, said UNAMID would continue its work in the region regardless of whether al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC.

"The (Sudanese) government would assume its full duty of protecting UN missions in Sudan against any negative impact that may result from an ICC possible decision against the Sudanese political leadership,” Le Roy said.

The UN-AU mission currently has 15,179 total uniformed personnel in Darfur, including 12,359 troops, 181 military observers, 2,639 police officers.

ICC ready to attack

ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo last July requested an arrest warrant for al-Bashir, saying the evidence was stacked against the 65-year-old general.

Ocampo said Tuesday that more than 30 witnesses were prepared to testify that the Sudanese leader designed and ran a campaign to eliminate three ethnic African tribes in the region -- the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa -- that rose up against the government.

He added that al-Bashir had already mobilized the military, militias, intelligence service and justice and foreign affairs ministries in Sudan for a rapid response to the arrest warrant.

With the warrant, al-Bashir becomes the first sitting president to be indicted by the ICC since it was established in 2002. The court is currently hearing cases against former leaders and military commanders from northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Mass deaths

Sudanese refugee children walk past a dead donkey in the desert outside Tine in eastern Chad bordering western Sudan
The Darfur conflict created a refugee and humanitarian crisisImage: AP

According to UN estimates up to 300,000 people have died since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime in 2003. The UN says that around 2.7 million people have been displaced because of the conflict. The government in Khartoum rejects these figures and any claims of genocide.

The ICC's warrant did not include a charge of genocide as requested by prosecutors. ICC officials, however said, if additional evidence is gathered against al-Bashir by the prosecution, the case could be amended to include a charge of this nature.

The Sudanese government had asked the AU, the Arab League and China to stop any warrant from being issued. The AU had called on the ICC to postpone issuing the warrant to allow for peace negotiations between warring parties in Sudan.

The ICC lacks the power to actively pursue alleged war criminals, but can have indicted suspects arrested if they enter the territories of signatories to the court's founding Rome Statute.

In 2007, the ICC issued warrants for crimes in Darfur against Sudanese minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb, which Khartoum has refused to honor.