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Darfur Rebel Questions Neutrality of Peacekeeping Base

Defence lawyer for rebel leader claims Khartoum used African Union camp to gain intelligence on rebels and civilians.
By Katy Glassborow
Defence lawyers for a Darfur rebel leader, currently in the Hague to establish whether there is enough evidence to prosecute him for attacking peacekeepers, have argued that the Sudanese government had been using an African Union, AU, base to target civilians.



Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, the commander of a splinter group of the Justice and Equality Movement, is alleged to be one of three rebel leaders behind a September 29, 2007 attack on the base in Haskanita, north Darfur, in which 12 peacekeepers were killed and eight wounded.



Garda appeared last week before the International Criminal Court, ICC, voluntarily and following his eight-day confirmation of charges hearing – which ends this week – judges will have 60 days to decide whether or not to proceed to trial.



Prosecutors have argued that the strike was unlawful because the peacekeepers and their base enjoyed the protection afforded to civilians, as they were not a party to the Darfur conflict, had no enforcement mandate, and could only use force in self-defence.



But Garda’s lawyer, Karim Khan, suggested that the government of Sudan, GoS, had been using information gleaned at the base to enable airforce bombers to hit Darfur civilians and rebels.



A peacekeeping agreement had provided that representatives from the parties to the conflict – the rebel Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, as well as GoS – could be present at the base.



However, rebels were alarmed by the presence of a GoS representative, an airforce captain called Bashir, suspecting that the base was being misused. One witness statement, read out in court, insisted that between June and September 2007, the rebels prevented peacekeepers from even leaving their base.



“Rebel forces forbade us from going on patrol, and no helicopters were permitted to land in the camp to bring supplies,” said another.



Prosecutors said that rebels visited the base on September 10, 2007 and complained about the presence of Captain Bashir, asked for his removal and threatened that if they were attacked again by GoS, they would in turn attack Haskanita.



Captain Bashir was removed the next day, prosecutors said.



However, under cross-examination, the second of two prosecution witnesses told the court that Captain Bashir was replaced with another GoS representative named Major Abdul Malik, so that a government representative remained on the base.



Regardless of whether GoS was at the base, prosecutors were adamant that this did not remove the civilian status afforded to the peacekeepers.



On the morning of September 29, Sudanese forces bombed rebels in the village of Haskanita, some two kilometres from the base. An AU report described it as an “unrelenting offensive by the GoS forces” during which the rebels sustained huge casualties.



Rebels attacked the Haskanita base that evening.



The argument before the court is if the base was used to supply information to one party to the conflict, were the peacekeepers neutral - as the prosecutors argue - and should they and their base be classed as civilian.



A statement from peacekeepers read out in court insisted that “our mission was to establish peace. The AU had to bring the belligerent parties together through dialogue. Our role was to encourage dialogue. AMIS [African Mission in Sudan] was not mandated to intervene militarily”.



Another said that AMIS never took sides during the conflict. Prosecutors stressed that its mandate did not allow for participation in hostilities; personnel were only allowed to use deadly force in self-defence.



Peacekeepers were tasked with monitoring and observing the ceasefire, contributing to building a safe environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the safe return of people displaced by fighting.



The AMIS peacekeepers were different in this respect from other peacekeepers, who operate under mandates which allow deadly force in order to maintain order.



Even though four rebels are indicted by the ICC for crimes in the Ituri province of the Congo, those suspected to have killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers there in 2005 were never prosecuted by the court. Nor were the killers of eight Guatemalan peacekeepers in Congo in 2006.



These episodes would only constitute a war crime if the peacekeepers were not considered combatants at the time they were killed. Regarding Haskanita, prosecutors say it was clear that peacekeepers and their base had civilian status.



Prosecutors have made it clear in the past that in killing and attacking peacekeepers in Darfur, the perpetrators also attacked the millions of civilians who those soldiers came to protect.



But Khan suggested that AMIS failed to build a safe environment for civilians, who grew fed up of the peacekeepers inability to protect them.



When cross examining the first witness, a Gambian peacekeeper who was stationed at the base, Khan asked whether he had heard government planes bombing Haskanita village on the morning of September 29.



“Yes, I heard it,” said the witness. Khan asked whether anyone had left the base to see how the civilians were. “No, no one went out to cross check what was going on,” the witness answered.



The witness explained that when he arrived at Haskanita, the base commander told him that the personnel were not authorised to go out into the village.



Questioning the second prosecution witness, Khan asked about a demonstration in which thousands of women and children came to the base to express their disappointment and dismay at the lack of protection afforded by the peacekeepers.



The witness conceded that some of the people at the demonstration were not happy, and amongst them was the spokesman for Haskanita village. However, together with much of the defence cross-examination, most of this witness’s testimony was in closed session, so no more details were made public.



Peacekeepers were first deployed to Darfur in 2004, and there have been complaints that GoS imposed restrictions on their work, including making them turn off internal communications devices at various times, and restricting which troops could be deployed and from which nations.



When UNAMID, the hybrid force composed of AU and United Nations peacekeepers, took over from AMIS in December 2007, 26,000 blue berets were supposed to be deployed in the region.



But GoS restricted which countries the hybrid force could be drawn from, insisting that it remain predominantly African. Today, the force is only 70 per cent deployed, with just over 17,000 personnel on the ground.



In a report to the UN Security Council two years ago, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said attacks by GoS forces and allied militias were continuing against the two million forcibly displaced civilians in Darfur, “and against international workers, as well as frequent impediments by the authorities to the delivery of assistance”.



Moreno-Ocampo stressed that the man presiding over this dire situation was then-minister of state for humanitarian affairs, Ahmad Harun. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for him in May 2007, but the Sudanese government vowed never to hand him over.



In his application for an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in July 2008 – and issued in March this year - Moreno-Ocampo said the president was responsible for genocide, and continued to persecute displaced civilians by inflicting “conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction, in particular by obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance”.



Moreno-Ocampo claimed that Bashir sowed insecurity in the camps through spying and harassment by the humanitarian aid commission, HAC, and said there were numerous examples of arrests and killings of camp leaders who spoke out.



Prosecutors said the ministry of humanitarian affairs and HAC, working with GoS intelligence and security apparatus, delayed the delivery of aid, expelled relief staff denouncing such acts, denied visas and travel permits, and imposed unnecessary bureaucratic requirements on aid workers.



They also said Bashir ensured that GoS, the armed forces and allied militias worked together to ensure that the police would not intervene to protect civilians and hinder and obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid to the IDPs.



Figures suggest that 61 peacekeepers lost their lives while serving with AMIS during 2004-2007, and UNAMID has so far lost 17 of its members in attacks.



Investigations into who was responsible have drawn no conclusions. Sometimes attackers were in military uniforms, sometimes in civilian clothes, turbans and flip-flops, UNAMID said.



Moreno-Ocampo said last week that there were no plans to open up investigations into other attacks against AMIS peacekeepers.



Katy Glassborow is and IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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