World court issues arrest warrant for Sudan's Bashir

Omar al-Bashir is the first sitting president to be indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Critics worry the move could destabilize the country.

Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir on Wednesday became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

At a press conference held at The Hague, Netherlands, The International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its indictment of Mr. Bashir for a range of crimes, including the deliberate attempt to destroy ethnic groups deemed to be supporting rebel factions in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

"He is suspected of being criminally responsible ... for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan; murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property," said ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon.

The three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence to support the more controversial charges of genocide, however.

Nearly 300,000 Darfuris have died in the past six years of conflict, either in combat or through starvation and premature death due to displacement. The United Nations estimates that nearly 2.5 million Darfuris have been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting. Bashir's government denies ordering the deliberate murder of civilians in Darfur, and says that the death toll is much lower than the UN and the ICC estimates.

"This is a significant step for the hundreds of thousands of victims of conflict in the past six years," says Ariela Blatter, senior director for international programs at Amnesty International in Washington. "The fact that the ICC issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state is a signal to Bashir that there is no 'get out of jail free card here.' "

The indictment comes at a time of great political instability in Sudan. Darfur rebels are expanding their operations into neighboring states as the country prepares for crucial national elections this year. And relations between Khartoum and the semiautonomous southern portion of Sudan are coming under increasing strain.

Campaigning for his National Congress Party (NCP) outside Khartoum on Tuesday, President Bashir discounted the importance of the ICC's looming decision, saying that the Court could "eat" the indictment. Vice President Salva Kiir, a former southern rebel leader who now shares power with Bashir in a coalition government, struck a more conciliatory line.

"In the event of the court agreeing with the chief prosecutor," Mr. Kiir said on Tuesday, "the [Sudan People's Liberation Movement] will work with its partners in the NCP on how to politically and diplomatically handle the decision of the court." He urged the international community to remain engaged in Sudan, whatever the decision, warning, "The collapse of peace in Sudan shall not only hurt the Sudan itself, but shall also have serious repercussions in the region."

Beset by a north-south civil war for nearly 20 years, which claimed millions of lives, Bashir ended it in 2003 by signing a comprehensive peace accord and agreeing to share power in a coalition government with the southern rebel movement, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Despite Mr. Kiir's reassuring words, some experts worry that the peace deal could be dealt a fatal blow, as well as similar peace talks with Darfur rebels, if SPLA leaders deem Bashir's government to be on its way out.

For this reason, leaders of the African Union and the Arab League have been working furiously to persuade the United Nations Security Council to encourage the international court to delay its indictment and arrest warrant for at least a year. This, many African leaders believe, would give enough time for current peace talks with Darfur-based rebels to begin to bear fruit.

But human rights groups insist the world should support the ICC's ruling. "The international community should affirm its support for the court and insist that Sudan and other countries cooperate with it as required by the UN Security Council," says Nick Grono, deputy president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

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