In Nigeria, Sudan's Bashir plays cat and mouse with international court

Nigeria gives Sudan's president an honor guard and red carpet treatment, even though he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir walks out of a hotel in Abuja July 14. Bashir arrived in Nigeria on Sunday for an African Union summit on HIV/AIDS as his hosts chose to ignore an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against him.

Less than halfway through a two-day HIV/AIDS summit in Nigeria, Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir flew home as activists launched legal action to force his arrest for charges at the International Criminal Court.

Nigeria is a party to the ICC and as such has a legal obligation to arrest Mr. Bashir, who is accused of ten counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity linked to the violence in Sudan’s western Darfur province.

But instead of detaining him, Nigeria’s government laid out a red carpet welcome with full military honors for Bashir when he arrived late Sunday. The Sudanese leader departed Nigeria Monday night.

Reuben Abati, spokesman for Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, said that Bashir was free to come and go because Nigeria respected an order from the African Union in 2009 that its members should ignore ICC arrest warrants.

The debacle illustrates again the relative powerlessness of the young world court, which has no police force to apprehend those persons it indicts, but must rely on signatory nations to deliver them for trial.

Nigeria’s refusal to arrest Bashir strengthens impunity for those accused of the world’s worst crimes, and is a slap in the face for those who continue to suffer the effects of war, the Nigerian Coalition for the ICC said in a statement.

“The victims of the conflict in Darfur have suffered without justice for more than a decade due in part to the reluctance of some ICC member states to abide by the arrest warrants for Bashir and other ICC suspects in Darfur,” said Chinonye Obiagwu and Theodora Oby Nwankwo, the coalition’s directors.

“If Nigeria and other members of the ICC are committed to ending impunity in the world, they must not allow ICC arrest warrants to go unenforced, and at the very least must not accept visits from suspects like Bashir.”

Rights activists including Mr. Obiagwu and Ms. Nwankwo filed a suit early Monday in the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, seeking the arrest of the Sudanese president.

Before the application could be heard, however, Bashir left. A diplomat at Sudan’s embassy in Abuja told The Associated Press that the president’s hasty departure had “nothing to do with” the court application.

Several African nations – South Africa, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and Central Africa Republic – have said that they would act on the international arrest warrant should the Sudanese president enter their territory.

But there are still many countries that would rather side with the African Union position of non-cooperation with the court than carry out its orders.

Human Rights Watch said that Nigeria now had the “shameful distinction” of being the first country in West Africa to welcome Bashir.

Britain, one of Nigeria’s largest trading partners and a significant donor, said it was “disappointed” that the Sudanese president had been hosted in Abuja.

“This undermines the work of the ICC and sends the victims a dismaying message that the accountability they are waiting for will be delayed further,” Mark Simmonds, Britain’s Secretary for Africa, said in a statement.

Bashir was indicted in 2009, the first sitting president the ICC’s prosecutors targeted. Two arrest warrants have been issued against him, in 2009 and 2010.

He is among 30 people – all Africans – indicted by the world court, which is facing increasing pressure to widen its prosecutions beyond the continent.

William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, who faces charges linked to his alleged role in organizing election violence in his country in 2008, was told Monday that his case must go ahead at The Hague, where the ICC is located.

Judges ruled against Mr. Ruto’s request to transfer part of the hearings to Kenya or neighboring Tanzania. Several witnesses against Ruto have disappeared, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, said in court Monday.

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