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South African government under fire over al-Bashir

Thuso Khumalo / Asumpta Lattus (Reuters, AFP, DPA)June 23, 2015

Opposition parties in South Africa condemned the government on Tuesday for allowing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attend the 25th African Union Summit and letting him leave without arresting him.

South African President Jacob Zuma
Image: AFP/Getty Images/R. Bosch

During a robust and no walls barred parliamentary debate on Tuesday, opposition parties accused President Jacob Zuma’s government for dining with and protecting people they termed dictators like al-Bashir.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) argued that by not arresting al-Bashir the government was in contempt of both a local court that ordered his arrest and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As a signatory of the ICC, South Africa was expected to arrest the Sudanese president and hand him over to the ICC, but authorities allowed him to leave despite an arrest court order. DA member Steven Mokgalapa said "Al- Bashir should have been arrested because we are morally, legally and constitutionally duty bound to comply with the domestic law and international obligations. The ANC government, led by Zuma has committed a crime of assisting a wanted man to run from the law."

Congress of the People leader Mousiuoa Lekota lashed out at the government for disregarding the law. "You lied to us you said you will uphold the constitution, uphold the law and be an example. You have misled the people of our country and now we are ashamed before the nations of the world."

But the ruling African National Congress (ANC) defended the government stance. Deputy Minister of Traditional Affairs Obed Bopela said al-Bashir enjoyed the same immunity as heads of state attending United Nations meetings.

"President al-Bashir was invited to the AU by the AU. He was not visiting South Africa. He was not on a state visit here. He had attended a meeting that is constituted by an act of the African Union which was being hosted in South Africa," Bopela said.
The ANC also called for the reform of the ICC, saying it is being used to target African leaders by those who themselves have refused to rectify its statues.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
Supporters cheered President al-Bashir on his return to KhartoumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Ali

'Committed to solve the matter'

The long awaited debate in parliament was to inquire into events that led to the hasty departure of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir from South Africa.

Reports say that South Africa secretly planned the departure of al-Bashir and that the Presidential Protection Unit was tasked with President al-Bashir ground's transport.

South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance now wants a full investigation into who was responsible for sneaking al-Bashir out of South Africa.

"The President and the Executive cannot simply ignore the law as they see fit. The ANC has forsaken the principles of our Constitution and the need to respect the rule of law," said DA leader Mmusi Maimane in a statement.

The government has however categorically denied that it plotted al-Bashir's departure. It is committed to solve the matter in collaboration with the court, which gave the government seven days to investigate the issue.

"[The government] is expected to provide the court with a report that explains how President al-Bashir left the country," said a statement by the Government Communication Information Services (GCIS).

South Africa has been highly criticized by international community and rights groups for its failure to arrest al-Bashir while he was in the country.

Pulling out of the ICC

The ruling party, African National Congress (ANC) is now mulling over whether it should pull out of the ICC. "If I was in government, I would say give notice, get out of that, it was not what was envisioned," ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told local radio in South Africa.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance
DA leader Mmusi Maimane wants the government to shed lights on who is behind al-Bashir's sneaky departureImage: imago stock&people

"It [The ICC] is a tool in the hands of the powerful to destroy the weak and it is a court that is focusing on Africa, Eastern Europe and Middle East," Mantashe said.

But some legal experts say that withdrawing from the ICC will be quite difficult. Speaking to DW's AfricaLink program, Liesl Louw, African Union expert and a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies said, “Because the Rome statute has been domesticated in South African law. Even if South Africa withdraws, it will still have to comply with the ICC and the Rome statute,” Louw said.

'An embarrassment for South Africa'

Bashir slipped out of South Africa on Monday last week while the South African court was presenting its legal arguments on whether Bashir should be handed to the International Criminal Court.

This followed a decision by the human rights group the South African Litigation Center (SALC) to file an application to force the country, as a member of the Rome Statute, to adhere to the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant.

The South African court then barred al-Bashir from leaving the country. But al-Bashir was able to leave nevertheless apparently with the support of the government of South Africa.

This was embarrassing for many South Africans. "South Africa has created a difficult situation for itself. My feeling is that by allowing him in they wanted to demonstrate to the world a common position of Africa on the ICC," said Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies think-tank.

Bashir's sudden departure also prompted a huge local and international uproar. The UN, US and the ICC were disappointed at South Africa's failure to detain him and the local court gave the government seven days to explain to the court why it defied the court order and let Bashir get out of the country.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in a bloody conflict in Darfur in 2003. According to United Nations estimates, the conflict killed more than 300,000. Bashir went to Johannesburg on July 13 to take part in an African Union summit.