By Alexandra Hudson - Analysis
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Sudan’s president may not be delivered swiftly into the arms of international justice, but the fate of former leaders of Liberia and Yugoslavia suggests he might not evade the law indefinitely.
The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor accused Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Monday of plotting a campaign of genocide in Darfur, including the killing of 35,000 people and asked judges to issue an arrest warrant.
“It is extremely unlikely that Bashir will end up in a court room any time soon,” said Nick Grono of the rights body International Crisis Group.
The indictment, now issued, takes on at very least a symbolic significance in Sudan, for better or for worse. Bashir retains a firm grip on power and may seek to use the ICC involvement to bolster support further. Rebel opponents, for their part, say the indictment will galvanize resistance.
Bashir is the first sitting head of state charged by an international court since Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, both of whom were eventually transferred to the Hague. Milosevic died before a verdict could be issued in his four-year-old trial.
The fate of the two, indicted by special war crimes tribunals set up to investigate the break-up of Yugoslavia and civil war in Sierra Leone, established the international courts as a force to be reckoned with in the handling of war crimes.
The Hague-based ICC was set up in 2002 to continue the work started by the special tribunals on a permanent basis.
“International justice is a relatively recent trend which goes back to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993,” said Richard Dicker of rights group Human Rights Watch.
“In a relatively short period of time that trend has come a long way, surprising critics and supporters alike in the way it has brought sitting heads of states to account.”
Milosevic was ousted as Yugoslav president in October 2000 after a popular revolt in which the war crimes charges filed against him a year before were a factor.
Six months later, after a 36-hour siege of his Belgrade villa, Serbian authorities arrested him, initially on domestic corruption charges. Reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic later surrendered him to The Hague.
A new political regime also played a key role in Charles Taylor’s delivery to international justice.
Taylor fled Liberia for Nigeria in 2003 after his political foes took power. New Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf later asked that Nigeria arrest him and transfer him to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he faced charges of orchestrating violence and abuse.
His trial began in the Hague in 2007 after fears it would stoke unrest if held in West Africa. Taylor now finds himself in the prison were Milosevic had been housed.
But Bashir’s position differs markedly from that of Milosevic and Taylor. He has a far stronger grip on the reins of power and those who would deliver him to the Hague remain at a safe distance for him.
“There is no real prospect of Bashir being ousted soon,” Grono, of the International Crisis Group, said.
However Suleiman Sandal, deputy chief of staff of the most militarily powerful Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) said the prosecutor’s move would help spur change.
“We in JEM will put all our forces to the service of the International Criminal Court to help bring him to justice... this decision will put Bashir in a corner and will help us now to overtake this regime.”
HRW’s Dicker cautioned that although all kinds of factions in Sudan would seek to use any arrest warrant to their advantage, Bashir could also use it to shore up his support, portraying the ICC action as foreign interference.
If judges issue an arrest warrant it will certainly constrain Bashir, making international travel for the head of state practically impossible and high-level diplomatic contact difficult.
The ICC said it had planned to arrest Ahmed Haroun, Sudan’s humanitarian affairs minister also wanted by the ICC, when he went on a Muslim pilgrimage last year by diverting his plane, but he heard about the scheme and abandoned the trip.
ICC prosecutors scored a victory in May however when former Congolese rebel warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was detained by Belgian authorities acting on an ICC arrest warrant.
Editing by Ralph Boulton