PARIS - Judges at the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest Wednesday of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for atrocities committed in Darfur, but Sudanese officials swiftly retaliated, ordering Western aid groups that provide for millions of people to shut down their operations and leave.
Skip to next paragraph
Demonstrations in support of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir began in Khartoum, Sudan, after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest.
After months of deliberation, the judges charged Mr. Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity for playing an "essential role" in the murder, rape, torture, pillage and displacement of large numbers of civilians in Darfur. But the judges did not charge him with genocide, as the prosecutor had requested.
In issuing the order, the three judges put aside diplomatic requests for more time for peace talks and fears that the warrant would incite a violent backlash in Sudan, where 2.5 million Darfur residents have been chased from their homes and 300,000 have died in a conflict pitting non-Arab rebel groups against the Arab-dominated government and its allied militias.
Within minutes of the court's announcement, thousands of people gathered in central Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, denouncing the decision and waving national flags and posters of Mr. Bashir's face.
The Sudanese government has long vowed to resist the court, and it summoned several humanitarian organizations to a meeting almost immediately after the warrant was announced, according to aid officials. As many as 10 groups received letters ordering them to leave or curb their work, according to people briefed on the meeting.
The British charity Oxfam said that the government had revoked its license to operate, a decision the group said could affect more than 600,000 people. The Dutch section of Doctors Without Borders, which provides health care in one of the world's biggest camps for displaced people, in South Darfur, was ordered to leave the country.
"It happened right after the announcement," said one aid official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of negotiations to persuade the government to back down. "The connection was clear."
The warrant is the first in which the court, which opened in 2002 in The Hague, has sought the arrest of a sitting head of state. Other war-crimes courts have issued warrants for sitting presidents, including Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Charles Taylor of Liberia.
"We strongly condemn this criminal move," said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations, adding that the government would no longer work with aid groups it deemed hostile. "It amounts to an attempt at regime change. We are not going to be bound by it."
But many human rights groups and Darfur exiles saluted the judges' decision. Niemat Ahmadi, of the Save Darfur Coalition, called the warrant a lifeline for those living in camps. "It will change the mood of frustration and helplessness for our people," Ms. Ahmadi said.
Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch, said the warrant was likely to isolate Mr. Bashir internationally. "This means he will be a fugitive, a man on a wanted poster," he said.
In their statement, the judges called for the cooperation of all countries - not just the 108 that are members of the court - to bring Mr. Bashir to justice.
Legally, Sudan is obliged to arrest Mr. Bashir, but that seems unlikely. The court has no police force or military, and the United Nations peacekeepers in Sudan have no mandate to detain war-crimes suspects.
Beyond that, Mr. Abdalhaleem said, there is little chance that the president will be arrested in a friendly country, because many African and Arab states have rejected the prosecution of Mr. Bashir as counterproductive to peace efforts.
The question of genocide has also been divisive, but the judges said 2 to 1 that the prosecutor had not provided sufficient evidence of the president's specific intent to "destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," the most crucial issue in determining genocide.
The prosecutor had argued that the government tried to exterminate three ethnic groups - the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups - and that after driving them off their lands and killing many people, armed militias continued their genocidal campaign by raping and impregnating the women in the refugee camps.
The arrest warrant is likely to further complicate the debate over how to solve the crisis in Darfur. It came despite concerns from United Nations diplomats, the African Union, the Arab League and some humanitarian organizations that such a move could provoke renewed violence and threaten the peace deal that ended an even more deadly civil war in southern Sudan.
One sign of fallout came almost immediately. The Justice and Equality Movement, a major rebel group in Darfur that signed a preliminary accord with Khartoum last month, announced that it would now reject negotiating with Mr. Bashir's government.
"There will be some violence here and there," said Alain Le Roy, the United Nations under secretary general for peacekeeping operations.
Mr. Le Roy said there might now be further delays in deploying United Nations peacekeeping troops to Darfur, where only about 64 percent of the force is in place. Still, he said Sudan had reassured United Nations officials that it would protect peacekeeping missions.
Some figures in the government have threatened bloodshed in response to an indictment. Salah Gosh, the head of Sudanese intelligence, was recently quoted in Sudanese news reports as calling for the "amputation of the hands and the slitting of the throats of any person who dares bad-mouth al-Bashir or support" the court's case against him.
At the United Nations, Mich