Sudan’s President Escapes Arrest for War Crimes in South Africa

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen during the opening session of the AU summit in Johannesburg, Sunday, June 14, 2015. A South African judge on Sunday ordered authorities to prevent al-Bashir, from leaving the country because of an international order for his arrest, human rights activists said. (PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen during the opening session of the AU summit in Johannesburg, Sunday, June 14, 2015. A South African judge on Sunday ordered authorities to prevent al-Bashir, from leaving the country because of an international order for his arrest, human rights activists said. (PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

Born in a more hopeful era, when citizens of the world committed to stamping out injustice and holding genocidal dictators and warlords accountable for crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague suffered a major blow on Monday when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir escaped South Africa on his presidential jet, foiling yet again a six-year quest to bring him to justice.

The 71-year old, who has ruled Sudan with an iron first for two and a half decades, stands accused by the court of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to the 2003 conflict in Darfur, which claimed more than 300,000 lives in a gruesome orgy of decapitation, rape and torture committed by government militias. Al-Bashir denies the charges.

So confident was al-Bashir in his impunity that he landed in Johannesburg on 13 June to attend the opening of the African Union Summit and mug for the cameras, despite the fact that, as a signatory to the convention that created the ICC, South Africa is legally obliged to arrest the Sudanese president and transfer him to the Netherlands. The South African authorities did not. Instead they allowed him to leave the country on the second day of the conference, despite a judicial order calling for him to remain.

Al-Bashir’s willingness to travel to Johannesburg in spite of two international arrest warrants is an indication that not only has the ICC lost credibility, but that South Africa, once a beacon for justice and human rights on the continent, has bowed to political expediency. “This marks a moment of historic failure,” says Eric Reeves, a professor and a Sudan expert at Smith College in the United States, and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide. “If the only body that is capable of taking on the massive, indisputable atrocities that have taken place in Darfur over the past 13 years, if that body is flouted by sheer machinations of an indicted génocidaires, who is allowed to leave a country that is a signatory to the ICC, then the court is clearly deeply troubled.”

The impasse over how to deal with the pending visit one of the world’s most wanted criminals was set in place on June 5, when South Africa’s minister of international affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, signed an agreement granting diplomatic immunity to delegates participating in the African Union summit, directly contravening South Africa’s responsibilities to the ICC. But once al-Bashir arrived, the South African Litigation Center, a legal rights group, argued before Pretoria’s high court that South Africa’s responsibilities to the ICC carried more weight. The judge agreed, ordering the police to keep al-Bashir in the country until the courts could decide if al-Bashir should be handed over to the ICC.

But even before the court came to session on Monday June 15, al-Bashir slipped out of the country on his presidential jet. Officials at the military airport say his name was not on the flight manifest, so they could not stop the airplane’s departure. Representatives of the South African Litigation Center are calling contempt of court, but it is unclear what the legal repercussions, if any, will be.

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SOURCE: TIME, Aryn Baker