Sudan president dismisses international court's war crimes charges

A day after the International Criminal Court called for his arrest, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir on Thursday dismissed the prosecution as a "modern tool" in what he called the historic struggle to impose Western religion and culture on Africans.

In a characteristically defiant speech before thousands of his supporters here, Bashir invoked the "holy wars" of past Sudanese generations that rose up against foreign invaders and colonizers.

"We defeated them in the 19th century," he said. "We defeated them in the 20th century. And we will defeat them in the 21st century. . . . This is the new Sudan, raising its voice against hegemony to tell colonialists: We will not kneel."

Bashir, who was accused Wednesday by the ICC of ordering a brutal counterinsurgency in the western region of Darfur, left little doubt that his government would vigorously fight the arrest warrant. "We are at war," he said.

The government followed up the fiery rhetoric by confirming that it had moved to expel about a dozen foreign aid groups for allegedly helping the ICC build its case.

The organizations, mostly based in the U.S. and Europe, include Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Save the Children and Care International. They assist hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Darfur.

Aid officials expressed concern that the expulsions could have a devastating effect on the people of Darfur and the $1-billion-a-year humanitarian effort supporting them.

"These are some of the biggest aid agencies," said Oxfam spokesman Alun McDonald. "I don't know how they are going to fill that gap."

Oxfam provides clean drinking water and related services to 600,000 displaced people. Doctors Without Borders is the sole medical provider and hospital operator for scores of Darfur villages and camps. Care International is a major distributor of food aid.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday that the move would cause "irrevocable harm" and urged the Sudanese government to reconsider the decision.

The organizations said they also planned to appeal, but in the meantime several had halted their operations.

At a news conference Thursday here in the Sudanese capital, Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman, head of the government's Humanitarian Aid Commission, accused the groups of sharing information with ICC investigators, flying witnesses outside the country and violating the terms of their humanitarian missions. The groups denied having any connection to the Netherlands-based court.

Three Sudanese organizations focusing on human rights and the environment also were suspended. Abdel Rahman said the groups' offices and equipment would be seized and their work absorbed by Sudanese agencies.

It was unclear whether the government planned any other retaliatory measures. No United Nations agencies or foreign diplomatic missions have been affected, though there is speculation that Sudan might move against them.

Some warned that the government's action could backfire by galvanizing the international community against Sudan. Several large countries, including China, have expressed support for blocking the ICC case, but that could change, according to Hisham Aboulela, the honorary consul general for Finland in Khartoum.

"If they behave in a stupid, aggressive way, as they always do, that could be where they go wrong," he said.

Legal experts said the backlash was a reminder of the risks involved in filing such a criminal case against a sitting president.

"This case creates a very dicey situation," said Barbara Mulvaney, former prosecutor in the Rwanda genocide tribunal. "To charge a sitting president you have to have a rock-solid case because this is someone who has a lot of power over other people's lives."

Bashir is the third sitting president to face war crimes charges from an international tribunal. Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia were brought up on similar charges and neither stayed in power very long. Milosevic died while on trial in March 2006; legal proceedings continue against Taylor.

On the streets of Khartoum, government offices temporarily shut down Thursday morning as citizens marched toward the presidential palace to hear Bashir's speech. Throngs of well-dressed government employees carried banners and flags, while truckloads of students promised to wage "holy war" against the International Criminal Court.

Security was tight, with troops dispatched around downtown and plainclothes intelligence agents monitoring crowds from motorcycles.

People debated the merits of the court case, but most expressed anxiety about how the government would respond and at the country's growing international isolation.

"This decision is not just against Bashir, it's against all of Sudan," said engineer Mohammed Ahmed Ali, 32, on his way to the rally. "The rest of the world is trying to do to Sudan what they did to Afghanistan and Iraq. They want to destroy us because we are big and developing."

Though pressure was high for people to attend Bashir's rally, many managed to boycott it. "Finally justice has come," said one young man who was too afraid to give his name. "Bashir deserves this."

Another man, a 34-year-old with four children, kept a low profile during the rally by discreetly sipping tea at an out-of-the-way indoor arcade.

"This isn't important to me," he said, waving a hand dismissively toward the crowds. "What I care about is feeding my daughters. And now I'm afraid that life is just going to get harder."


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