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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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One reason Robert Mugabe may be clinging to power in Zimbabwe is fear of being indicted, and current policies of immunity for sitting heads of state, experts say.

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Less than two decades ago, such tribunals were seen as unrealistic, impotent symbols. Some experts worry that indictments like Bashir's may be used as a substitute for diplomatic or military pressure to resolve conflicts in the region. Yet the fact that the ICC spent nearly eight years building a case – shows an independence, maturity, and persistence over the past decade.

"The Moreno indictment, if it goes ahead, is an assertion in this whole vague world system we have, that even after the 1990s, with its many liberal regimes and the creation of the ICC, that the court and justice is asserting itself as an independent force," says Ana Uzelac, an expert on human rights and the Yugoslavia tribunal at The Hague. "That's almost miraculous, and a little bit exciting."

In fact, the concerns shown by the Sudan government itself suggest how seriously the justice tribunals are taken, even if some of their most ardent advocates admit they may not deter war and violence in the short term.

"Whether the Sudan indictments are a good or a bad idea, they certainly are having a real impact," says James Hooper, director of the Public International Law and Policy Group in Washington. "The Sudanese leaders are paying attention to this ... and a key to any final deal on Darfur may be to drop the charges."

Arguing against prosecuting genocide

An outbreak of greater violence in Sudan and harm to the innocent may redound against the ICC as an argument against prosecuting genocides. Yet news reports suggest many victims and families in Darfur support a tribunal that tells them that someone interested in higher justice is watching.

"Not only do perpetrators have to look over their shoulders," says Mr. Williams. "But increasingly justice must be considered early in a conflict mediation, not just after the world powers step in. A confident ICC shows that in the long term, you can't get away from justice."

Editorial reaction in Sudan cut differently in the north and the south. Several newspapers ran angry editorials denouncing Ocampo. "Let it be known that the Sudan is supported by its people and will never bow to any threats because it fears nothing," wrote the English-language Sudan Vision. However, Alfred Taban, editor of the Khartoum Monitor newspaper, which is linked to southern rebels now part of the government, welcomed the ICC's role. "The government of Sudan always reacts to pressure and these indictments will contribute towards pressure to find peace," he said. "There will be some problems now but the International Criminal Court is acting in the interests of Sudan and the people of Darfur."

Rob Crilly contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan.