Monday, February 23, 2009

Int'l court to decide on Darfur warrant

Judges at the International Criminal Court said Monday they will announce next week whether they will order the arrest of Sudan's president on charges including genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Prosecutors at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal asked last July for a warrant, accusing Omar al-Bashir of masterminding a campaign of murder, torture and rape by government troops and Arab militias in the Darfur region.

The president would be the first sitting head of state ordered arrested by the court.

But even if the judges issue a warrant on any or all of the 10 charges in their ruling March 4, it remains unlikely al-Bashir will be sent to the court's headquarters in The Hague any time soon. Sudan does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and refuses to hand over suspects.

It is unusual for judges to announce when they plan to publicize such a decision — but they have never previously tackled such a high-profile case since the court started work in 2002.

In a written statement, the three judges on the panel said they announced the date because they were "deeply concerned" at rumors about their decision.

Arab and African nations have lobbied for the court to drop or postpone the case against al-Bashir as his government and rebels seek a peace deal that would end fighting in the vast desert region of Darfur.

The war there began in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against the government complaining of discrimination and neglect. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes.

Sudan's intelligence chief Salah Abdallah has warned the country could revert to hard-line Islamic rule if al-Bashir is indicted.

"Our message to those who stand behind the ICC is that we were Islamic fundamentalists but have become moderate and civilized and this continues to be our conviction," Abdallah said in comments carried Saturday by Sudanese newspapers. "If they press us to return to our past position, we will no doubt return. And if they want us to return into hard-liners anew, that is a simple thing to do. And we are capable of doing it."

The court has launched cases in Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic and Sudan but has only four suspects in its custody, all of them Congolese militia leaders. The first trial started last month, with Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga pleading innocent to charges of recruiting and using child soldiers.

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