Omar al-Bashir: Sudan's Wanted Man

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Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, waves to supporters at an event organized by the Sudanese embassy in Cairo on July 17, 2009

Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, reckons that being on the run is easy. In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the conflict in Darfur, where at least 200,000 people have died since 2003 in a campaign that the Bush Administration described as government-sponsored genocide. The ICC indictments, the first to be handed down against a sitting head of state, obligate the world's nations to arrest al-Bashir on sight. And yet, he points out, he has attended summits and meetings in seven African and Arab countries over the past few months. "I have not felt [any] restrictions of movement," al-Bashir told TIME in an interview that took place in the colonial-era presidential palace in Khartoum in early August. "A President has his deputies, assistants and his specialized ministers, so it's not necessary for [him] to travel to every country. But I have traveled all necessary travels."

The ICC sees things differently. Going after rulers like al-Bashir may not lead to an immediate arrest, says the court and its backers, but it makes them pariahs and isolates them. Since the indictment, al-Bashir hasn't set foot in any country that takes its obligation to the court seriously, and although the 52-member African Union last month declared solidarity with al-Bashir against the ICC, a small but growing number of African countries — Uganda is the latest — say they could arrest him if he tries to cross their borders. "It could take two months or two years," says the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. "But President Bashir's destiny is to face justice."

Sitting in a gilded chair upholstered in white leather, al-Bashir didn't appear worried. The former paratrooper came to power as part of a 1989 military coup that introduced a strict Islamic legal code to Sudan. Since then, he has survived U.S. bombings (ordered by President Bill Clinton on suspicion that Khartoum had ongoing ties to Osama bin Laden), accusations that Sudan practices slavery, a long-running civil war and the bloody conflict in Darfur. It helps that the country's fast-growing oil industry, closer ties to China and a peace deal to end the civil war have fueled strong economic growth over the past few years. If it weren't for the Darfur crisis, al-Bashir might now be reaping the rewards of a rapprochement with the West.

The President said the problems in Darfur, a vast western province inhabited by both Arabs and Africans, began when rebels attacked government offices and security forces. "Any government in the world, when facing an armed rebellion, has a constitutional, legal and moral obligation to resist those militants," he said. Mistakes have been made, he conceded, but the commanders responsible have been tried and punished. "The U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan mistakenly bombed a wedding and killed 147 civilians. But you cannot say that the U.S. President should be tried for this because he is the Commander in Chief of U.S. forces," al-Bashir told TIME. "Not even the [U.S.] head of Chiefs of Staff would be put to trial." The ICC, he said, "is a tool to terrorize countries that the West thinks are disobedient."

That's rubbish, says Moreno-Ocampo. "Al-Bashir killed thousands of people saying 'You're black, you're African' ... The shame would be if this court ignored the victims of Darfur."

There's another reason to go after al-Bashir: to put pressure on him. Over the past few months, Sudan has begun to play ball with the West, even as it has shouted that it isn't doing so. The government has entered new peace talks on Darfur and in June announced that it would allow nongovernmental organizations back into the region following a three-month ban. At the same time, Washington has relaxed a few of its positions on Sudan. Special envoy Scott Gration recently told Congress that there was no evidence to support the U.S. designation that Sudan is a state sponsor of terrorism. Gration has also said that the situation in Darfur is no longer a genocide but only the "remnants" of one.

Assuming he stays out of the ICC's reach, al-Bashir faces a public trial of a different sort next year: a presidential election. Insiders say he wants to step down but that those around him want him to stay for another term. "Political work in Sudan, as I see it, is not a comfortable task," he said. "It is tiring, exhausting and with great responsibilities. I used to tell some Presidents whose periods had ended that the best thing is to be a 'former President' — someone who is respected, appreciated and without any responsibilities." Andrew Natsios, who was a special envoy to Sudan during the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency, says al-Bashir's power inside Sudan's ruling political faction has ebbed over the past couple of years. There are things he doesn't control. "It is not possible for a President in a country like Sudan, the size of Sudan, with the immense problems of Sudan, to administer and manage everything," said al-Bashir. "I don't follow the details. No one can follow the details in a country like Sudan." Of course, denying control is a useful argument when you're wanted on war-crimes charges.

Watch Sam Dealey's interview with President al-Bashir on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS tonight at 6 and 7 p.m. ET.