Indicted over Darfur, Sudan's President Feints and Punches Back

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses participants at the launch of a national initiative to bring peace to Darfur, in Khartoum.

Ever since the International Criminal Court began pursuing allegations of war crimes in Darfur in 2005, its investigators have pursued a government-backed militia leader known as "the colonel of colonels." Ali Muhammad Ali Abd Al Rahman — a.k.a. Ali Kushayb — was high in the pantheon of the Janjaweed militia when a warrant was finally issued for his arrest in February 2007. Investigators said he led raids that left hundreds dead and countless homes destroyed. According to one witness, Ali Kushayb once inspected a line of naked women just before they were raped by his men. There were critical grumblings that the Sudanese government was coddling him: Ali Kushayb had been detained before but had been released for lack of evidence.

So it was more than a surprise when Khartoum announced last week that it had, in fact, been holding Ali Kushayb for several months and that he would be put on trial. "The timing of this particular claim about an arrest is certainly interesting," says Christopher Hall, head of Amnesty International's International Justice Project. Sudan claims that the investigation into Kushayb gained speed after a special prosecutor was appointed in August. But Hall and many others suspect that Ali Kushayb's trial — if it ever happens — is just the Sudanese government's latest gambit in what has become a full-blown campaign to derail the International Criminal Court's investigation into its own complicity in charges of genocide in Darfur.

"We haven't actually seen anything formal," Hall says of Ali Kushayb's trial. "One of the things that Amnesty International is asking for immediately is that Sudan permit a trial observer to attend the proceedings and for a copy of the charges and any other court documents related to the case." On Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch derided Sudan's domestic investigations into the Darfur conflict as nothing more than "window dressing." The group's Africa director, Georgette Gagnon, said that Sudan was clearly trying to block the ICC's work. "No one should be fooled by these moves," she said in a statement released on the group's web site.

The government of President Omar al-Bashir has been criticized for its methods and policies since the very start of the Darfur conflict, which has killed some 300,000 and displaced 2.5 million in five years. Along with domestic trials, which have achieved little, Bashir announced on Thursday a "people's initiative" to bring peace to Darfur, even though none of the rebel groups agreed to take part.

Such gestures have come more frequently in recent months as Sudan tries to shut down the ICC investigations, experts say. For a couple of years, Sudan seemed to have regarded the Hague-based International Criminal Court dismissively, but its focus was sharpened in July when Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo sought an arrest warrant for President Bashir himself. During the annual General Assembly session last month, Sudan pressed its case with other countries. The Bashir government warned that Sudan could cancel all its agreements with the U.N. if the ICC case goes ahead. "It is not true that the government is trying to show the world they are trying to do something — in fact, they are doing something," Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Sadiq Ali told TIME. However, just for good measure, he repeated the government's stance that "it will not hand over a Sudanese citizen to the outside."?]

The core of Sudan's strategy is simple. The ICC may only take on cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity if the country where the crimes allegedly occurred doesn't pursue the cases itself. Since the ICC got the Darfur docket in 2005, Sudan has repeatedly assured the outside world — not very persuasively, experts say — that it is trying Darfur atrocities cases itself. The ICC itself remains unconvinced that Ali Kushayb's arrest, or Sudan's prosecution of low-level officials in Darfur, is sincere. "No cases involving serious violations of international humanitarian law have been tried and therefore our case is still admissible and the arrest warrants must be executed," says Florence Olara, a spokeswoman in the ICC's prosecutor office.

Bashir has tried to woo African Union leaders, who have a tendency to close ranks around colleagues who become the target of accusations of rights abuses or political shenanigans. And so far, it has worked. The African Union has asked the U.N. Security Council to order the ICC to suspend its Darfur investigations on the grounds that they pose a threat to international peace and security. African Union leaders also say that by prosecuting Bashir, the ICC will complicate matters for U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, most of whom are from neighboring countries on the continent. Bashir attempts to stall the mission have already left it severely hobbled. "We are simply concerned with the best possible sequencing of measures so that the most immediate matters of saving lives and easing the sufferings of the people of Darfur are taken care of first," Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete, the current AU chairman, told the U.N. General Assembly in September.

This campaign against the ICC allows Bashir to give the impression that he's in control. But some experts say the attacks may be a bid to shift attention from his own troubles. Sudanese society, including the government, is not monolithic and it's important to bear in mind that there are significant divisions in government about how to deal with the war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur," says Hall of Amnesty International. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if at some point, sooner rather than later, Bashir is arrested by Sudanese police and put on a plane to the Hague."

Click here for pictures of Darfur Descends Into Chaos