CAIRO (AP) — Sudan’s transitional authorities have agreed to hand over ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court to face trial on charges of war crimes and genocide, a top Sudanese official said Tuesday, in a deal with rebels to surrender all those wanted in connection with the Darfur conflict.
For a decade after his indictment, al-Bashir confounded the court based in The Hague, Netherlands. He not only was out of reach during his 30 years in power in Khartoum, but he also traveled abroad frequently to visit friendly leaders without fear of arrest. He even attended the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he kicked a soccer ball playfully during an airport welcome ceremony and watched matches from luxury seating.
The military overthrew al-Bashir in April 2019 amid massive public protests of his rule, and he has been jailed in Khartoum since then. Military leaders initially ruled out surrendering him to The Hague, saying he would be tried at home.
But the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that has ruled Sudan since last summer has agreed with rebel groups in Darfur to hand over those wanted by the ICC to face justice in The Hague, according to Mohammed Hassan al-Taishi, a member of the council and a government negotiator.
He didn’t mention al-Bashir by name, but said, “We agreed that everyone who had arrest warrants issued against them will appear before the ICC. I’m saying it very clearly.”
He did not say when they would be handed over.
“We can only achieve justice if we heal the wounds with justice itself,” he said. “We cannot escape from confronting that.”
He spoke at a news conference in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where the government and multiple rebel groups are holding talks to end the country’s various civil wars, including Darfur.
In the Darfur conflict, rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
The government responded with a scorched-earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed militiasknown as the Janjaweed, who are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
Al-Bashir, 76, faces three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his alleged role in leading the deadly crackdown. The indictments were issued in 2009 and 2010, marking the first time the global court had charged a suspect with genocide.
The ICC has indicted two other senior figures in his regime: Abdel-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, interior and defense minister during much of the conflict, and Ahmed Haroun, a senior security chief at the time and later the leader of al-Bashir’s ruling party. Both have been under arrest in Khartoum since al-Bashir’s fall. Also indicted were Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb and a senior Darfur rebel leader, Abdullah Banda, whose whereabouts are not known.
Al-Taishi also said that the transitional authorities and the rebels agreed on establishing a special court for Darfur crimes that would include crimes investigated by the ICC.
ICC spokesman Fadi Al Abdallah said the court had no comment until it received confirmation from Sudanese authorities. However, he said the country would not have to ratify the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, before sending al-Bashir to The Hague.
“There is an obligation for Sudan to cooperate” with the court’s arrest warrants, he said. “The ratification of the Rome Statute itself is not a requirement for the surrender of suspects.”
Another member of the Sovereign Council said the government delegation to the Juba talks has a “green light” from military leaders in the council, including its head, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, to announce that Sudan will hand over al-Bashir.
“We want to reassure the armed groups that we are serious and want to achieve peace as soon as possible,” he said.
The Sovereign Council member also said any extradition “might take months,” because he is wanted for other crimes in Sudan related to the “revolution” and the Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The decision could face a backlash from within Sudan’s military, from which al-Bashir emerged, and also from Islamists in the country.
Al-Bashir’s lawyer, Mohammed al-Hassan, warned that handing him over would have “dire political and security repercussions” for Sudan. He said he hoped Burhan “keeps his obligation that al-Bashir or any Sudanese won’t be handed over to the International Criminal Court.”
“This matter will not happen easily,” he told the AP by phone.
Handing over al-Bashir is a sensitive issue in Sudan as the country tries to steer toward democratic and economic reforms. The deputy head of the Sovereign Council, Gen. Mohammed Hamadan Dagalo, commands a paramilitary unit that was involved in crushing the Darfur insurgency. The transitional government is under pressure to end its wars with rebel groups as it seeks to rehabilitate the battered economy, attract much-needed foreign aid and deliver the democracy it promises.
“The fledgling post-Bashir Sudan government is demonstrating a serious commitment to human rights principles in its first months in office.” said John Prendergast, expert and co-founder of the Sentry watchdog group. “Finally seeing a small measure of justice done for the mass atrocity crimes in Darfur will hopefully breathe new life into global efforts in support of human rights and genocide prevention.”
Rebel negotiator Ibrahim Mousa called it a “big breakthrough.” Another rebel leader, al-Murzi Abuel-Kassem of the Justice and Equality movement, hailed it as “an important day for the Sudanese people, particularly the displaced and refugees in the camps.”
If al-Bashir is handed over, it would be only the second time a country has surrendered a foreign leader to the ICC. Ivory Coast transferred former President Laurent Gbagbo in 2011 to The Hague, where he was acquitted last year of crimes against humanity charges linked to alleged involvement in post-election violence.
Al-Bashir would be the highest profile figure yet to appear before the ICC, which was founded in 2002 but has been unable to gain acceptance among major powers, including the United States, Russia and China.
“Although the ICC has generated important legal precedents, it has had few important cases brought to verdict,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School. “Al-Bashir is the ICC’s ‘white whale.'”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that handing al-Bashir over to the ICC is “potentially a huge and long-awaited step for justice for the people of Darfur.”
Amnesty International’s acting secretary general, Julie Verhaar, hailed Sudan’s decision and urged authorities to “translate these words into action and immediately transfer al-Bashir and other individuals under ICC arrest warrant to The Hague.”
“They should further show that the era of impunity for al-Bashir’s government is over by bringing to justice all other alleged perpetrators of horrific crimes of the previous regime,” she said.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed.