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For Darfur, a step toward justice?

Critics say The International Criminal Court's move Monday to indict Sudan's president for war crimes may hamper peace.

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Yet actors as diverse as the Chinese government, former US envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios, and authors of a new history of Darfur say the ICC is playing a dangerous game. Targeting Bashir will throw a north-south Sudan peace process into jeopardy and may give the Sudanese president an excuse to turn further wrath on the UN, aid workers, and Darfurians.

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Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, authors of "Darfur: A New History of a Long War," argued in articles widely reprinted in the US and Britain, that the ICC prosecutor overstated the extent of the crimes now taking place in a recent presentation to the UN.

They warn that "Sudan's leaders believe the United Nations in Sudan is the police officer of the ICC, just waiting to enforce arrest warrants, and they have a history of responding to humiliation with rage. If the Khartoum government is indeed the beast that Ocampo depicts, is it wise to confront it in this manner...?"

In Sudan's capital of Khartoum, an aid worker who requested anonymity described fears of how the ICC charge "will impact the security situation in Darfur and in the south – whether it will lead to more fighting, closure, and harassment of camps and whether rebels will use it as an excuse to step up attacks." Aid agencies already face state persecution and staff expulsions, and several have been accused of passing information on to ICC prosecutors.

The ICC charge will undergo scrutiny by a panel of ICC judges in the coming months. If the panel issues a warrant, it is unlikely the arrest will occur while Bashir is in office.

Rise in legitimacy of justice tribunals

The ICC began to investigate Darfur in 2005 at the direction of the UN Security Council. Sudan does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC, and cases against such states (the US, Russia, and China also fall in that category) must proceed through the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Many legal advocates thought Bashir would be indicted last year. But Ocampo, who made his name prosecuting generals in Argentina, instead indicted two lower-level Sudanese officials first, and spent another 16 months polishing the Bashir case, sources say.

The ICC indictment puts China in an awkward postion. It relies on Sudanese oil but it also doesn't want to be portrayed as supporting a criminal as it hosts the Olympic Games in August.

Legal experts point out a slow rise in the impact of justice tribunals in just the past decade. Mr. Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial for crimes against humanity. Mr. Taylor is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes. Several fugitives charged with genocide in Rwanda have been extradited this year to the international court holding trials in Tanzania.