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Omar al-Bashir, fresh off press crackdown in Sudan, defies ICC in visit to Chad

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir today flew to Chad on his first visit to a full member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) since his arrest warrant was issued. He left amid a severe crackdown on press freedoms at home.

By Rebecca HamiltonContributor / July 21, 2010

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (r.) shakes hands with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit as he prepares to leave for Chad, in Khartoum July 21. Chad said on Wednesday it would not arrest al-Bashir who arrived in the country for his first visit to a full member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) since his arrest warrant was issued.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh/Reuters

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Khartoum, Sudan

Buoyed by a win in the disputed Sudan election in April, President Omar Al Bashir continues to thumb his nose to critics at home and abroad, jailing journalists and challenging an arrest warrant for war crimes and genocide.

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Mr. Bashir today flew to neighboring Chad on his first visit to a state member of the International Criminal Court since he was indicted in March 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC ruled July 12 that Bashir is now also wanted on genocide charges. The ICC has requested that any member, including Chad, arrest Bashir upon arrival in the country.

His controversial visit comes a week after his government handed prison sentences to three Sudanese journalists for writing articles that suggested Bashir lacks popular support and that a Sudanese factory is making weapons for Iran and Hamas.

The prison terms, which range from two to five years, are the latest development in a crackdown on local media that began after Sudan’s national elections.

The crackdown is a stark turnaround from Bashir's decision in September 2009 to lift the government’s pre-publication censorship of newspapers. The decree was a small concession to Western pressure to create free and fair conditions for Sudan’s first democratic election in 24 years.

But Bashir's victory in the April polls, after most major opposition parties boycotted the vote, gave his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) almost total control over the institutions of the state, and the new government rapidly moved to shut down several newspapers.

On July 6, the government resumed pre-publication censorship across the board, limiting freedom of expression beyond what it was before the pre-election period.

Bashir emboldened

The three recently jailed journalists all worked for Rai al-Shaab, a newspaper of the opposition People’s Congress Party (PCP). Two weeks after Bashir’s election, the government’s ubiquitous internal security agents arrived at the newspaper's office in Khartoum, arrested four journalists, and shut down the paper. The next day they arrested PCP leader Hassan al Turabi, who was imprisoned for 45 days before being released without charge.

Mr. Turabi says he was surprised by the government’s actions. “I thought they would want to appear democratic for a while – at least to put on a show for the West,” he says.

A few days later, pre-publication censorship resumed on three other papers. As the squeeze on opposition voices tightened, it became clear that the ruling regime had no concern about keeping up appearances.

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