CAIRO (AP) — The Sudanese military on Friday rejected calls that it hand over ousted President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court where he faces genocide charges for his deadly campaign in the western Darfur region. Instead, he will be put on trial at home, a senior general said.
Gen. Omar Zein Abedeen presented the refusal as a matter of preserving Sudan’s sovereignty. But the announcement pointed to the sensitivity of the case of the Darfur conflict for the military council that has taken power after removing and arresting al-Bashir amid mounting protests against his 30-year rule.
The new de facto head of state, Defense Minister Awad ibn Ouf, was head of military intelligence during the brutal campaign to suppress an insurgency in the western Darfur region in the 2000s. The United States has imposed sanctions on him since 2007, saying he armed and directed pro-government militias known as the Janjaweed, accused of widespread atrocities against civilians and rapes during the conflict.
It also underscored the limits on the reach of the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, Netherlands. On Friday, ICC judges rejected a request by the court’s prosecutor to open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan and alleged crimes by U.S. forces there, in part because the U.S., Afghan government and Taliban are not expected to cooperate.
In the Darfur conflict, rebels among the territory’s ethnic Central African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. The government responded with a scorched earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed the Janjaweed. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million driven from their homes.
Along with al-Bashir, the ICC has indicted two other senior figures in his regime — Abdel-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, who was interior and defense minister during much of the conflict, and Ahmed Haroun, a senior security chief at the time who last month was named by al-Bashir to run the ruling National Congress Party.
Both were among those reported by the Sudanese media to have been arrested Thursday in a sweep by the military against al-Bashir’s inner circle. Zein Abedeen on Friday confirmed the media reports without specifying the two men.
An ICC spokesman declined to comment on al-Bashir’s case. On Thursday, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged the Sudanese military to hand over the ousted leader. “Victims of the gravest crimes in Darfur should not have to wait any longer for justice,” said Jehanne Henry, associate director at Human Rights Watch.
Speaking at a Khartoum news conference, Zein Abedeen said the 75-year-old al-Bashir was in the military’s custody but would not say where. Asked if al-Bashir would be extradited to the ICC, he said to do so would be “an ugly mark on Sudan. … Even rebels carrying weapons, we don’t extradite them.”
He said Sudanese courts would hold al-Bashir “accountable,” but did not specify what charges he could be prosecuted on. In ousting the president, the military denounced him and his government for corruption, maladministration and “lack of justice.”
Meanwhile, Zein Abedeen sought to reassure protesters who, while celebrating al-Bashir’s removal, oppose the military’s seizure of power in his wake. After ousting the president, the military announced it would rule the country for two years through a transitional council. It also suspended the constitution, dissolved the government, declared a three-month state of emergency and imposed a night-time curfew.
Protest organizers have vowed not to end their street action until a civilian transitional council is formed, saying rule by military commanders who for years were al-Bashir loyalists is just an extension of his regime. Tens of thousands of protesters remained at a weeklong sit-in outside the military’s main headquarters, chanting slogans calling for the ouster of the defense minister, ibn Ouf.
The curfew and state of emergency have raised fears the military could eventually disperse the sit-in by force. But at least initially, it appears to be trying to persuade protest organizers to end the campaign. The state news agency SUNA said ibn Ouf planned to meet with political factions and protest leaders and was holding off announcing the full makeup of the transitional council pending those consultations.
Speaking at a news conference aired live on state TV and flanked by other uniformed officers, Zein Abedeen — who is tasked with leading dialogue with Sudan’s political factions — insisted the army has no ambition to hold the reins of power for long.
“If within a month, Sudan became able to run itself without chaos, we are ready to leave even after a month. The maximum is two years,” he said. He said the military would only appoint the defense and interior ministers in any transitional government and would not interfere.
“This was not a coup,” but a “tool of change,” he said. “We came … to guide the country forward.” He said the military commanders were “the sons of Sewar al-Dahab,” referring to army chief Abdel-Rahim Sewar al-Dahab, who handed power to a civilian government after a coup in the 1980s.
“We will not betray you,” he said.
But protest organizers rejected the military’s assurances, calling them “deception and farce.”
The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the four months of demonstrations against al-Bashir, said the “coup leaders … are not eligible to bring change,” and repeated demands for the “immediate handover of power to a civilian transitional government.”
At the sit-in, the mood was festive. Some protesters brought in mattresses, fans and even air conditioners, while others swept the streets to keep them clean, signaling they intend to stay long-term. As thousands of Muslim worshippers lined up in the street to hold prayers, Christians among the protesters held blankets over them to shade them from the sun in a show of solidarity.
Men and women in the crowds beat drums, clapped and chanted, “Down with military rule!” and “We won’t be silent until ibn Ouf is out!”
There were also signs of cracks among al-Bashir’s former loyalists. On Friday, the commander of Sudan’s feared Rapid Support Force, a paramilitary force, expressed support for the protesters, saying the forces will not “accept any solutions rejected by the Sudanese people” and called for dialogue so Sudan would “avoid slipping into chaos.”