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Sudanese Backing for Bashir Questioned

Citizen groups’ appeal for ICC to refrain from indicting president challenged by Darfur victims.
By Tajeldin Abdhalla
Darfuris interviewed by IWPR have dismissed warnings by Sudanese citizen groups that the indictment of president Omar al-Bashir for genocide would destabilise their country.

The warnings are contained in a submission to International Criminal Court, ICC, judges, filed on January 11 on behalf of the Sudan Workers Trade Unions Federation, SWTUF, and the Sudan International Defence Group, SIDG.

The submission claims to represent the “vast majority of organised working people” in Sudan, but Darfuris IWPR has spoken to have said the submission is the work of government stooges – claims the two groups deny – and insist they would welcome the indictment of the president.

According to the submission, SIDG is a newly-created non-governmental committee established “out of concern for the negative effects that ICC arrest warrants could have at this time for the peace process in Sudan and for the ordinary people of this country”.

The submission says that arrest warrants for anyone in relation to Darfur – including rebels who prosecutors also want to try – would threaten the “relative peace” that exists thanks to the Darfur Peace Agreement and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

In July 2008, ICC prosecutors asked judges to indict Al-Bashir for ten counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit peoples of Darfur. Judges are expected to issue an arrest warrant in the first two weeks of February.

Prosecutors say that for five years, Al-Bashir conducted genocide through rape, hunger and fear, as government troops and allied janjaweed militiamen murdered, tortured and raped civilians, and forced them from their homes.

They say Al-Bashir mobilised the armed forces, intelligence agencies, diplomatic services, media and justice system in order to destroy the two-and-a-half million displaced people living in camps.

But SWTUF and SIDG argue Al-Bashir has been instrumental in brokering peace agreements, and is vital to their implementation, and that judges should think carefully about Sudan’s national interests and security before issuing indictments.

The possible indictment of the president, they say, introduced “volatility and a higher chance of a return to war” and a humanitarian crisis far worse than before.

Certainly, Darfur continues to be in turmoil. With the government tense ahead of the expected Al-Bashir arrest warrant, there’s been an upsurge of attacks against Darfur rebels.

The government has asked the joint African Union and United Nations peacekeepers, UNAMID, to quit the southern Darfur town of Muhajeriya, a rebel stronghold, as it plans to bomb the area.

As such, ordinary Darfuris IWPR has spoken to say that things could not get much worse for them.

“Anything is better than having Al-Bashir free to kill and terrorise. The new waves of indiscriminate aerial bombing across Darfur where the innocent civilians are the target is yet another reminder of this regime’s brutality, but who dares to stop it?” said Hamid Sulieman, a tailor from El Ginena in west Darfur.

Adam Hasan, a Zaghawa, from Abu Nabug refugee camp in east Chad, says indicting Al-Bashir is the best solution to end the “misery and agony” of the people.

“I am very sure that those who wrote this [submission] in name of peace and stability in Darfur, wrote it while sitting comfortably in Khartoum or somewhere else without thinking about what we went through for more than five years,” he said.

Speaking to IWPR from Khartoum Rasheed Gadir, the president of the SIDG, says this isn’t true. “We are not with the government against the people of Darfur - this is not our position. We are Sudanese and are entitled to have views on the matter. Just because at the particular point…our views correspond with those of the government, this does not in any way mean we are a proxy or organ of the government,” he said.

He argues that the ICC is a very divisive issue in Sudan, “I do not claim to represent all Darfuris or all Sudanese people, but the [predominant opinion], which no-one can deny, is opposed to the [indictment of Al-Bashir] on many grounds.

“We want judges to be able to listen to the array of views to understand that not all people are pro [Moreno] Ocampo (the ICC prosecutor), there are a lot of people, some of whom live in Darfur, who are against indictments.”

Al-Bashir refuses to recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction over Darfur crimes – referred to prosecutors by the United Nations Security Council in 2005 – and has engaged the British law firm Eversheds to advise the government on issues of international law relating to the powers of the ICC and the UNSC.

Given the absolute control of Al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, NCP, over civil society, Darfuris IWPR has spoken to see SWTUF and SIDG as government proxies.

Due to the open hostility of the NCP towards the ICC, they say no-one has the power or means to approach the court without Khartoum’s consent. Mohamed Alsary Ibrahim, who was recently sentenced to 17 years in jail in Khartoum for alleged espionage, criminal conspiracy and cooperating with the ICC, is a case in point.

A leading Sudanese human rights activist, who preferred not to be named, says the submission is part of the government’s desperate attempt to discredit the ICC.

“The government will use any opportunity. It is using its military and security might to try and cut down anyone who might speak out. It says it does not recognise the ICC, but at the same time is using proxies to produce arguments before the ICC,” he said.

Gadir denied that his group and the SWTUF were government proxies.

“We are Sudanese citizens and we have concerns for Sudan, and our group is completely independent. We have our own views and take our own decisions,” he said.

“We have not taken the government’s side over the conflict in Darfur, but have a view that the [possible indictment of al-Bashir] threatens the whole of the country, and this is a legitimate concern for a lot of people.”

SWTUF and SIDG say they are supported by Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit Darfuri tribal leaders, and that they “speak with the authority that comes from representing a significant portion of the population of Sudan”.

But Darfuris IWPR has spoken to say this is not true.

A representative of the Kalma internally displaced persons’ camp in Nyala, who preferred not to be named, said “the so called ‘citizens of Sudan’ who introduced the [submission] did not take into consideration the mere fact that death, rape, torture and collective punishment have been inflicted on us, not on them”.

The Kalma representative, who’s from the Fur tribe, wonders “who gave these people the right to [warn against the indictment of Al-Bashir] and who do they represent? If they are talking on our behalf, I would like to say that they don’t belong to us and we, as IDPs, don’t belong to them”.

The submission argues that “alternative means of transitional justice and resolution are being pursued”, and that ICC arrest warrants could harm future national judicial initiatives.

It acknowledge that trials, truth commissions and traditional justice mechanisms must be implemented, but that the Sudan People’s Initiative Forum, launched in November, shows the government’s determination to “find solutions and facilitate accountability”.

But Mohamed Elmokhtar Elnour, a lawyer from wa’ad centre for legal assistance in south Darfur, says the Sudanese judiciary is in no fit state to deliver justice, because crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are not on the statute books.

Elnour says instead there are controversial laws, drafted and imposed by the government, which give impunity and protection to the army, security forces and police. “Justice can’t be carried out in such [an] environment,” said Elnour.

Darfuris in El Genina and Al Fashir who spoke to IWPR dismiss the special courts already set up by the government in Darfur to prove it is taking action to bring justice to the region without the need for the ICC.

They say the courts are a sham, that cases are dismissed if witnesses fail to turn up, and that courts never try anyone linked to Darfur atrocities, preferring instead to prosecute local petty thieves.

“This shows a complete lack of will,” said Elnour. “As the government continues to manipulate, influence and intervene in the judiciary system, we can’t speak of fair trials for Darfur.”

Hamid Sulieman, the tailor from El Ginena, said people in Darfur would be delighted if the court issues an arrest warrant against Al-Bashir.

“This is the man who turned our homeland into battlefield and deliberately sent his army and janjaweed to destroy us and break us into pieces,” he said. “There is nothing more wonderful in the world for any one of us than seeing the one who oppressed us facing justice.”

SIDG and SWTUF say an attempt to prosecute Al-Bashir is offensive and unacceptable to Sudanese people, “regardless of any actual culpability of the President”, and that “the dignity of the office of a serving President … must be preserved in the eyes of the citizens”.

But Hasan, from the Abu Nabug refugee camp, said that Al-Bashir’s presidency brought nothing to but humiliation and death, “There are more than 50,000 people packed in inhumane conditions in this camp alone who are not able to go back to their villages in Darfur because there is no peace.”

The Kalma representative said if there was peace in Darfur, he may listen to the submissions, but “as we speak, innocent people continue to die in mass numbers under president Al-Bashir’s watch. Bloodshed in Darfur will never stop if he remains in control”.

He said a number of Darfur groups have separately petitioned the ICC to press ahead with their case against Al-Bashir.

“We have also submitted many letters to the court and requested it to go a head with the case at hand,” he said.

Hasan says everyone in his refugee camp hopes the court will issue an arrest warrant for the president so they can return home.

“We are the people who have been deprived of everything; most importantly our human dignity. The court remains our last hope. We are waiting for the big moment to go wild in celebrations,” he said.

In an additional submission on behalf of the SWTUF and SIDG presented to the court on February 3, the applicants say Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribal leaders have invited pre-trial judges to come to Darfur and meet them before any decision is taken on issuing a arrest warrant.

They are arranging for a 1.8 million-signature petition, signed also by those “from groups named as the victims of the alleged genocide”, to be sent to The Hague by February 9.

They ask judges to take their submissions, and supporting annexes and petitions, into account.

According to a court spokeswoman, the submissions appear on the ICC website out of the court's desire to be transparent. However, the court was unable to provide an answer as to how it views the documents, and what their actual legal standing is.

Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgium and Katy Glassborow is an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague.

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