Confusion as Sudan president arrives day late in Beijing

Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir showed up 24 hours late Tuesday for a meeting with his most important ally, an embarrassing example of what might happen when you host a head of state who is also an alleged war criminal.

Bashir missed a summit meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao scheduled for Monday, and offered as a belated explanation that his plane had to turn around because it did not have permission to fly over Turkmenistan. He was en route from Iran, where he attended an anti-terrorism conference.

The Sudanese president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in his nation’s Darfur region. Countries that have ratified the court’s charter are required to arrest him if he passes through their territory.


It was not clear why Turkmenistan, which is not a party to the treaty that created the ICC, blocked the flight. China, which also is not party to the treaty, has brushed off complaints about hosting Bashir in Beijing.

Chinese officials said the meeting would be a chance to discuss the upcoming secession of Southern Sudan, which is scheduled to gain independence July 9.

“We believe China has a constructive role to play, and that through cooperation we can get Khartoum to behave more rationally with the international community,” said Yin Gang, a leading Middle East expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed Tuesday that Bashir had arrived as a guest of Hu. The two sides will discuss how to expand cooperation and “exchange views on Sudan’s ongoing north-south peace process and the Darfur issue,” according to a report carried by the official New China News Agency.

Bashir’s flight had been expected Monday morning in Beijing, and officials reportedly were standing by at the airport to greet him.

For most of Monday, the Chinese did not appear to know the whereabouts of Bashir’s airplane.

By late afternoon, Sudan issued a statement saying that the plane “was delayed because of an amendment that took place on the route of the presidential plane over the territory of Turkmenistan … forcing the pilot to return to Iran.”

Even before the unexplained delay, Bashir’s visit to Beijing was steeped in controversy, with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups condemning China’s invitation to the Sudanese leader.

“Bashir’s flouting of international arrest warrants should be cause for condemnation, not for an invitation,” Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program, said in a statement. He noted that the Central African Republic, Kenya, Turkey, Zambia, South Africa and most recently Malaysia have declined to host Bashir.

China, because it is not among the 114 members of the criminal court (neither is the United States, for fear of retribution against its troops for international operations), has no obligation to arrest Bashir.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a Beijing-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said it was possible that Bashir was snubbing China because of indications that he would be chided over violence in Abyei, the disputed border region between northern and southern Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes in recent fighting.

“The Chinese lost face when he didn’t show up,” she said. “He was just AWOL. Wasn’t it possible to radio from the airplane?”

Kleine-Ahlbrandt noted that the United States had held back from criticizing China over the meeting with Bashir in hope that it would prove productive.

“The Chinese are the only ones who can do the arm-twisting here,” she said.

China has extensive investments in oil, agriculture, minerals and infrastructure in Sudan and is the African nation’s largest trading partner. About 15,000 Chinese work in Sudan. China has also opened a diplomatic mission in Juba, which will be the capital of Southern Sudan. The new state will have the majority of Sudan’s oil reserves.

Bashir, in an interview published Monday in a major state newspaper in China in anticipation of the visit, praised China’s role in his country.

“When the American companies refused to work in the oil fields and when restrictions were imposed on the Western companies operating in Sudan, we found in China the real partner,” he said.