The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor will ask judges to issue an arrest warrant for the president of Sudan next week on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, diplomats and an official close to the case said Thursday.
The prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, issued a statement Thursday announcing that he would submit evidence of crimes committed against civilians in Sudan's western region of Darfur over the last five years, though he will wait until Monday at the pretrial chamber to name names.
If the judges issue an arrest warrant, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir would be the first sitting or former head of state to be charged with genocide by the 6-year-old international court in The Hague.
The prosecutor may seek the arrests of other senior Sudanese officials later, said the official close to the case, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the proceedings.
U.N. officials are concerned that the request for warrants could cause the Sudanese government to retaliate against peacekeepers and aid workers in Darfur -- or even eject them. But they have not asked Moreno-Ocampo to soft-pedal his charges against Bashir, said U.N. and court officials.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had tried to keep the court's quest for justice in Darfur on the margins of negotiations with Sudanese officials, concerned that it would disrupt the deployment of additional troops for a United Nations-led peacekeeping force. But Thursday, he told reporters that "in principle, I believe that peace and justice should go hand in hand."
The Sudanese envoy to the world body fueled fears that a request for Bashir's arrest would jeopardize U.N. operations in Darfur. "All options are open," Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem said. "It is playing with fire."
Darfur has been racked by violence since a rebellion against the central government began in 2003. At least 200,000 people have been killed, according to most estimates, most of the deaths blamed on militias that critics charge were unleashed by the government to put down the insurrection.
The U.N. in January took command of an African Union peacekeeping effort in Darfur. The force is expected to eventually consist of 26,000 troops, though it has grown only slightly from the original 9,000 African troops because of delays in deployment and supplies.
U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers, who have faced repeated attacks from gunmen, began retrenching in Darfur after an attack Tuesday on U.N. forces that killed seven and injured 20. The Sudanese ambassador blamed the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Unity rebel group, but U.N. officials say they suspect that the Sudanese army was linked to the attack.
Humanitarian groups have been withdrawing staff members from remote areas and preparing for demonstrations or attacks in response to Moreno-Ocampo's actions Monday.
"We take the situation quite seriously," said a humanitarian coordinator for Darfur, especially because nongovernmental organizations and the U.N. have faced frequent violence over the last six months. The coordinator requested anonymity for security reasons.
Sudan probably will not turn over its leader if a warrant is issued. Sudan has ignored arrest warrants issued last year for an official and a rebel leader, and even promoted the official, Ahmed Haroun, to oversee humanitarian affairs for the people he is charged with helping displace in Darfur.
"I swear to God, I swear to God, I swear to God, we will not hand over any Sudanese to the International Court," Bashir recently told a gathering of Sudan's Popular Defense Forces.
Moreno-Ocampo's strategy is risky, human rights groups and diplomats say. Besides potentially alienating the head of state who controls U.N. access to Darfur and triggering a retaliation, proving the crime of genocide is very difficult, said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
Moreno-Ocampo will have to show that the systematic killings in Darfur were ordered by Bashir with the specific intent to eliminate the Massalit, Zaghawa and Fur groups on the basis of their ethnicity.
The government claims that the conflict was triggered by rebels from those groups, and that the government and allied militias responded in self-defense. Any casualties occurred in the course of a counter- insurgency operation, and in intertribal warfare, officials have repeatedly said.
"If genocide is the charge that the ICC prosecutor is pursuing, he has set himself a high hurdle to get over," Dicker said.
Though warrants against Bashir would be a first for the ICC, its prosecutor would be following a path blazed by other tribunals.
A special court backed by the U.N. indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor in 2003 for atrocities committed during a 10-year civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. His trial is underway.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was indicted by the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1999, while he was still in office, and was turned over to authorities after he was overthrown in a popular uprising. He died of heart failure in 2006 during his trial in The Hague.
Moreno-Ocampo, an Argentine who helped put his country's former ruling junta behind bars, has been called quixotic in his quest for justice while at the International Criminal Court. He has opened investigations of violent campaigns in the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Uganda, Darfur and the Central African Republic. The court has issued 12 arrest warrants.
Moreno-Ocampo will be making his new far-reaching case against a backdrop of criticism after the recent collapse of his prosecution of a Congolese warlord accused of using child soldiers. The trial chamber suspended the trial of Thomas Lubanga after the court ruled that the prosecutor withheld evidence that could help the defense.
The Darfur case could help shore up Moreno-Ocampo's credibility, or undermine it.
"Charging a sitting head of state is going to generate a lot of commentary and controversy," Dicker said. "But given what has happened in Darfur since 2003, it is hardly a surprise that the trail of evidence leads to the head of state. It is an important step toward the end of impunity."