LONDON (Reuters) - The choice of a Sudanese general to head an Arab League mission in Syria has alarmed opposition activists who say Sudan's own defiance of a war crimes tribunal means the monitors probably won't recommend strong action against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab League says Lieutenant-General Mustafa al-Dabi brings vital military and diplomatic expertise to its unprecedented mission to verify that Assad is complying with a deal to end Syria's crackdown on protesters.
But some critics of Khartoum say it is all but impossible to imagine a Sudanese general ever recommending strong outside intervention, much less an international tribunal, to respond to human rights abuses in a fellow Arab state.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, who studies Sudan and has written strong criticisms of its government, said the choice of a Sudanese general was a sign the Arab League might not want its monitors to produce findings that would force it to take stronger action.
"There is a broader question of why you would pick someone to lead this investigation ... when he is part of an army that is guilty of precisely the sort of crimes that are being investigated in Syria," Reeves said.
"I think a Sudanese general would be one of the least likely people in the world to acknowledge these findings even if they are right there before him... It doesn't make any sense unless you want to shape the finding. They want it shaped in ways that will minimize the obligation to do more than they already have."
Syrian opposition activists are reluctant to publicly criticize a monitoring mission in which they have invested high hopes. But several have privately voiced concern over whether a Sudanese military man would be willing or able to take a hard stance towards Assad.
Dabi has held senior Sudanese military and government posts, including in the Darfur region, where the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court says the army carried out war crimes and the United Nations says 300,000 people may have died.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the Hague-based ICC for genocide and crimes against humanity. Khartoum says the accusations are baseless and politically motivated, and puts the Darfur death toll at 10,000.
Amnesty International said Sudan's military intelligence, at the time Dabi led it, "was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan."
"The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility."
Dabi, 63, has flown to Damascus to lead about 150 observers assessing whether Syria is ending a nine-month crackdown on protests, the first foreign intervention on the ground in unrest that the United Nations says has seen 5,000 people killed.
He became head of Sudan's military intelligence in 1989, the day Bashir took power in a coup, and went on to head Sudan's foreign spy agency and serve as deputy chief of staff for military operations from 1996-99.
He has held at least four positions related to Darfur, including coordinator between Khartoum and international peacekeepers sent in after rebels complaining of political and economic neglect took up arms in the remote western region.
He also served as Sudan's ambassador from 1999-2004 in Qatar, the country which has taken the lead in shaping the Arab League's unusually tough response to Syria.
Jehanne Henry, Sudan researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that as head of Sudan's military intelligence in the 1990s, Dabi "certainly would have been in a position to know what the security services were doing at that time."
"As we and others have documented in reports from that period, the security services were implicated in serious human rights violations such as the arbitrary arrest and detention of political activists and their ill treatment and torture...."
She said rebel leaders had accused Dabi of violations in Darfur, although Dabi was not one of the figures Human Rights Watch had linked to specific abuse documented in its research.
"He obviously does not fit the profile as a human rights monitor," she added.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby described Dabi as a military man with "very wide experience," which would be useful in a mission that is unlike any the League has attempted before.
"It (the mission) is not an easy thing to do, it is something the Arab League was not qualified to do," Elaraby told Reuters in an interview before the monitors were deployed. "In the past, no one asked the Arab League to do that."
Sudanese officials say Dabi's diplomatic and military expertise will contribute to the mission's success.
"We know that Dabi has experience, and we think he will take this message of the Arab League, and will be successful," said Rabie Abdelati, a senior member of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party.
But that will not be enough to persuade rights groups. Omer Ismail from the Enough Project, an anti-genocide campaign organized by the influential U.S. think-tank the Center for American Progress, said the choice of Dabi was "perplexing."
"Instead of heading a team entrusted with a probe of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by Syria, the general should be investigated by the ICC for evidence of similar crimes in Sudan," Ismail said in a statement.
"When he served as Sudan's former head of Military Intelligence, and when he oversaw implementation of the Darfur Security Arrangement, alleged war crimes including genocide were committed on his watch."
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Edmund Blair and Mariam Karouny in Beirut)