Sudan’s Ex-Ruler May Face War Crimes Trial, Official Says

The International Criminal Court had long sought the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s long-serving ruler. A member of the country’s governing council suggested he might be extradited.

Omar al-Bashir, the former ruler of Sudan, speaking to Parliament last year before he was overthrown in a popular uprising.
Omar al-Bashir, the former ruler of Sudan, speaking to Parliament last year before he was overthrown in a popular uprising.Credit...Ashraf Shazly/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

CAIRO — A member of Sudan’s ruling council raised expectations on Tuesday that the country’s deposed strongman, Omar al-Bashir, would be sent for trial on war crimes charges to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Mr. al-Bashir, who was ousted in a popular uprising last year, has been wanted by the international court since 2009 over atrocities in the restive western region of Darfur, where 300,000 people were killed and about 2.7 million displaced, beginning in 2003.

The ruling council member, Mohammed Hassan Eltaish, announced on Tuesday that the council had reached an agreement “to hand over those facing arrest from the International Criminal Court.” But he did not name Mr. al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron grip for three decades, or give any timeline for transferring him.

An official at the International Criminal Court said on Tuesday that the court had received no communication about a handover from Sudan’s government, and that there were no negotiations at the moment. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the court has not made a public statement.

Mr. Eltaish’s surprise announcement got a warm welcome from human rights groups that have been leading calls for Mr. al-Bashir to face justice on charges including genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by his forces during the long conflict in western Darfur.

But it was met with skepticism from Sudanese analysts who noted sharp, longstanding divisions between Sudan’s civilian and military leaders, and questioned whether Mr. Eltaish had the military’s support in his making his dramatic announcement.

“I’m very suspicious this means anything,” said Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow with the Rift Valley Institute, a research and training organization. “Sending Bashir to the I.C.C. is a bag of worms that I’m not sure the military wants to open. Inside the army it’s a very divisive issue.”

Mr. el-Gizouli noted that Mr. Eltaish made the announcement as he left peace talks between the government and Darfuri rebel groups, who have been fighting Sudan’s military for years and who suffered terribly under Mr. al-Bashir’s rule.

“Eltaish may have overstepped,” said Mr. el-Gizouli. “This could be just part of the negotiations story.”

Mr. al-Bashir was ejected from power in April of last year by military officers after months of street demonstrations. He was put in prison, and a council of civilians and military officials took control of the government.

Whether Mr. al-Bashir should face trial in The Hague is one of several issues dividing that ruling council.

Under a power-sharing deal forged last summer, military and civilian leaders agreed to govern Sudan jointly for three years, until elections can be held, under a sovereign council. It was agreed that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country's military chief, would lead the council for the first 21 months, until early 2021. Power would pass to a civilian for the remaining 15 months.

But the council has appeared strained by divisions between its civilian and military wings. Many generals who sit on it were appointed by Mr. al-Bashir, and have been his allies. Several were involved in the repression in Darfur and could potentially face criminal charges of their own.

Mr. Eltaish, the civilian council member who made the announcement, told Western officials in Khartoum last week that the military had agreed, in a special meeting, to extradite Mr. al-Bashir to The Hague, said one official who could not be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

The military made the concession, Mr. Eltaish told the Western officials, on the condition that the international court would not issue any indictments against other Sudanese officials over their actions in Darfur.

Still, that account of unity between civilian and military leaders was at odds with some very public clashes of late.

A furor erupted in Sudan last week after the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, disclosed that he had met in secret in Uganda with Sudan’s military leader, General al-Burhan, with a view to normalizing relations between Israel and Sudan.

Sudan’s civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said he hadn’t been consulted over the meeting and insisted that all foreign policy decisions be taken by Sudan’s civilian-led government.

Still, both civilian and military leaders have participated in the talks with Darfuri rebel groups, which are taking place in Juba, South Sudan, where Mr. Eltaish spoke on Tuesday.

“We cannot deliver justice until we use justice to heal the wounds,” Mr. Eltaish said. “We can definitely not escape the fact that there are crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against innocent people in Darfur and other regions.”

In December, Mr. al-Bashir was sentenced to two years in detention for corruption, possessing foreign currency and receiving illegal gifts. He has also been charged in relation to the deaths of protesters last year during the demonstrations that led to his ouster.

Mr. al-Bashir’s extradition on charges of war crimes, if it happens, could mark “a watershed moment” for the I.C.C., said Michael Newton, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, who is also on the counsel list of the court. The court has been beset by lengthy proceedings and scanty investigations, Mr. Newton said, and this case could prove it can deliver justice.

“They better seize it and move with expeditiousness because the interest of victims and the credibility of the court are both at stake,” Mr. Newton said.

Declan Walsh reported from Cairo and Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi. Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Maastricht, the Netherlands.