NAIROBI // The government of Sudan has been drumming up support from its Arab and African neighbours this week after the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recommended Omar al Bashir, the country's president, be indicted for genocide. A top Sudanese official said an indictment of the country's leader was an attack on Sudan's sovereignty, and warned other developing nations that it would set a dangerous precedent.
"If the sitting president of Sudan is allowed to be indicted, it can happen again," Bona Malwal, the adviser to Mr Bashir, said in Nairobi this week. "If President Bashir is taken to The Hague, maybe [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe will be next, and so on." Ten days ago, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, recommended Mr Bashir be indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity committed in Sudan's Darfur region.
The court, based in The Hague, was set up in 2002 as the first permanent war crimes court. It has never indicted a sitting head of state. A panel of judges will decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Mr Bashir within three months. Sudanese officials have subsequently fanned out across the continent and to Arab countries trying to gather substantial opposition to the indictment that could press the United Nations to quash any arrest warrant.
"The African leaders I have met with understand that the intention behind the indictment is clearly political," Mr Malwal said, on a tour of Eastern African countries. "If Africa allows this to happen, there will be no free countries in Africa. The ICC is the new arm for our would-be colonial masters." Mr Malwal also visited leaders of Tanzania on his trip. This week, the African Union asked the ICC to delay the indictment for a year to allow for peace negotiations. The Arab League is also backing Sudan and has formulated a plan to diffuse the crisis, which would include suspending an indictment.
The peace process to end the five-year conflict in Sudan's vast arid western region has stalled as some of the more than 30 rebel groups have failed to sign a ceasefire. The UN says 300,000 have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in the conflict that has pitted the government and government-backed Arab militias against mostly African rebel groups. Sudan says 10,000 have been killed in the war. The UN and African Union have 9,000 troops in Darfur. The peacekeepers and aid organisations in the region could be at risk if the ICC indicts Sudan's president, Mr Malwal said.
"The first casualty is the international operations in Darfur," he said. "The next casualty would be international peacekeepers. You cannot indict the president of a country and then ask that president to look out for the welfare of the peacekeepers in that country." Mr Malwal said the government of Sudan may withdraw visas for aid workers. The United Nations has moved non-essential personnel out of Darfur. Seven peacekeepers were killed and 19 wounded in an ambush earlier this month. UN officials said a state-sponsored militia carried out the attack while the government of Sudan blamed the attack on Darfur rebels.
Darfur has become a contested territory between Sudan and the ICC, Mr Malwal said. "We have a problem with western institutions saying 'we will take you as a criminal first before we work things out,'" he said. "Indicting the president is like overthrowing the government. Who is going to replace the president, the ICC?" Travelling to Darfur will be problematic for Mr Bashir if he is indicted because he could be arrested by peacekeepers, Mr Malwal said.
Sudan has not signed on to the ICC and refuses to hand over Sudanese suspects wanted by the court. Last year the ICC indicted Ahmed Haroun, the humanitarian affairs minister, and Ali Kushayb, a militia leader. Sudan agreed on Tuesday to try anyone it suspects of crimes in Darfur in Sudanese courts in an attempt to diffuse the crisis over the possible indictment of its president. Mr Malwal did not give specifics on who would be tried in Sudanese courts.
"[Mr Bashir] has a jurisdiction over all the Sudanese including the system of legal administration," he said. "The Sudanese courts are competent. If anybody has a complaint against any Sudanese he only needs to present his complaint to the Sudanese court." Yesterday, Sudan invited international experts to inspect its legal system to see whether it is capable of holding trials for war crimes committed in Darfur.
Abdel Basit Sabderat, the justice minister, said Sudan would revive its own trials for those accused of war crimes in Darfur. He said legal specialists from the UN, African Union and Arab League had been invited. "We invited them to come and see the judicial system in Sudan themselves," he said, adding that Mr Bashir had suggested this to Amr Moussa, the Arab League head, during his visit this week.
* with additional reporting by Reuters @Email:email@example.com