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VII. The Role of President Omar El Bashir and National Officials in Darfur Policy

The Sudanese government policy of “ethnic cleansing” was strategic and well-planned.  Since early 2003, the leadership in Khartoum has relied on civilian administration, the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias to implement a counterinsurgency policy that deliberately and systematically targeted civilians in violation of international law.  Ultimate responsibility for the creation and coordination of the policy lies in Khartoum, with the highest levels of the Sudanese leadership, including President Omar El Bashir, Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, and key national ministers and security chiefs.

The Sudanese government is extremely hierarchical in many respects, and functions through a tight network of ruling party insiders.144 Although further investigation to establish the details of the involvement of key national officials is necessary, the role of top Sudanese officials in coordinating the “ethnic cleansing” campaign is evident when the major offensives are analyzed. Even clearer is the pivotal role of President El Bashir himself, whose public statements were precursors to the call to arms and peaks in the violence, and no doubt echoed the private directives given to the civilian administration, military, and security services.

For instance, on December 30, 2003, President El Bashir announced that “Our top priority will be the annihilation of the rebellion and any outlaw who carries arms.”145 President El Bashir’s public words predated, by a matter of days, the January 2004 offensive that used systematic force in violation of international humanitarian law to drive hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas.  The Sudanese government’s military campaign dramatically escalated in the first days of 2004: hundreds of villages across Darfur suffered initial or repeat attacks, some of extraordinary brutality. Witnesses allege that not just bombs but incendiary devices were also dropped during some of the attacks, although Human Rights Watch was not able to verify these claims.146  The methodical use of aerial support to target civilians in the military campaign, despite protests from air force officers, also reflects the involvement of high-level officials in Khartoum.

Senior Sudanese officials knew or should have known that recruiting abusive ethnic-based militias could have devastating consequences.  Ethnic clashes over land and other resources had been taking place for years in the region at much lower levels. Individuals like Musa Hilal had contributed to the strained ethnic relations in some areas as a result of his attacks, and he had been detained by North Darfur governor Ibrahim Suleiman as a result. Ibrahim Suleiman, himself a ruling party insider but also from Darfur, told the New York Times: “When the problems with the rebels started in Darfur, we in the government of Sudan had a number of options. We chose the wrong one. We chose the very worst one.’’147 Yet despite Hilal’s record for, at a minimum, inciting ethnic tensions, he was released from prison, reportedly on Vice-President Taha’s orders, and given unparalleled responsibility to recruit and command militia forces.

Senior government officials, including President El Bashir, received appeals to stop the attacks from various individuals ranging from members of the national assembly to lawyers representing victims from Darfur. Even before the current devastating phase of the conflict, in May 2002, eighteen members of the National Assembly from Darfur submitted a memorandum to President El Bashir describing attacks that took place between July 2000 and May 2002, and calling for government action.148  Attorneys from Darfur who had documented dozens of attacks and unsuccessfully tried to pursue them through the justice system told Human Rights Watch they wrote to the Attorney General calling for investigations and prosecutions, received no response, and finally sent a memorandum to President El Bashir calling for a political solution to the rising conflict. The attorneys said the Sudanese president delegated presidential advisor Qutbi al Mahdi to meet with them in April 2003, but there was no follow up on their recommendations to the president.149

As noted above (Section VI.C), high-level insiders from the armed forces also complained about the attacks on civilians to their superiors by early 2004. Instead of taking action to prevent or punish the abuses, the Sudanese government continued to implement the same strategy of “ethnic cleansing,” with similar results, in South Darfur in the December 2004 offensive.

Even without these specific warnings about the volatile situation in Darfur, the Sudanese leadership had more than a dozen years of experience of the dangers of using ethnic militias. The government’s strategy of using ethnic militias in offensive military operations during the long war in southern Sudan provided ample evidence that such forces invariably targeted civilians and committed other war crimes.  Numerous attacks on the civilian population in southern Sudan wrought massive death and destruction, including several man-made famines resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most recently in Bahr el Ghazal in 1998.150 

Some observers may have believed that the Sudanese government would be reluctant to use such tactics against a northern—and similarly Muslim—population. The Darfur campaign proves that this was not the case. Sudanese leaders, including President El Bashir, the top military and security chiefs, and a ring of chosen insiders, deliberately implemented a strategy of “ethnic cleansing” led by government-backed militia forces. This strategy has torn Darfur apart.

Even once it was clear that massive abuses were taking place, the Sudanese government did nothing to prevent further crimes or punish the offenders and continued to deny the scale of the atrocities and the resulting humanitarian crisis. In the initial months of the conflict, prior to the atrocities making international headlines in mid-2004, thousands of displaced people flooded Darfur’s towns, complaining of the attacks and in many cases, initially calling on local government officials to send troops to protect them until they realized that they were under deliberate attack from the government.151 Dozens, if not hundreds of complaints were filed with police but prompted no investigation or arrests of the perpetrators of the abuses.

By mid-2004, Darfur’s atrocities had been documented by numerous organizations, including the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and were making headlines around the globe, including in the Arabic press, despite Sudanese government efforts to maintain a media blackout on Darfur.152 President El Bashir and other senior officials had knowledge of the abuses and did little or nothing to prevent them, judging from the record of crimes carried out by the Sudanese armed forces and allied militias for months after these reports were widely known. The December 2004 South Darfur offensive, for instance, which took place eight months after the April 2004 ceasefire agreement, and even after President El Bashir had established a national inquiry into the crimes, displayed all the same characteristics as the previous offensives, including military coordination of the Janjaweed, aerial bombardment, and mass forced displacement of civilians.

A. Key National Policymakers

In addition to President El Bashir’s role as commander-in-chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces, other senior officials, including Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, may have played equally important roles in Darfur policy and should be investigated. Frequent allegations have been made that Vice-President Ali Osman Taha is the key government policymaker where Darfur is concerned—and that he was one of the primary instigators of the policy of militia recruitment and use. 

Vice-President Ali Osman Taha

Allegations, but as yet little documentary evidence, about Taha’s role demonstrate the need for further investigation. For instance, community leaders in Darfur and others with whom Human Rights Watch spoke asserted that Vice-President Taha has a personal link to Musa Hilal, and it was through his personal authority that Hilal was released from prison in 2003, and elevated to be the coordinator of the Janjaweed militias.

Many community leaders and Darfurian elite told Human Rights Watch that nomadic militia members say they will answer only to Musa Hilal or Vice-President Taha.  A Zaghwa omda said, “After June 2003, the government help for Musa Hilal was very open, and through Ali Osman Taha. The Arabs say, ‘We don’t know anyone in Sudan [recognize any authority], except if it comes through Ali Osman or Musa Hilal.’ They say there is a direct link between Musa Hilal and Ali Osman Taha – Tajamu al Arabia [the Arab Gathering].”153  A Berti sheikh also mentioned the connection between the vice-president and local Arab leaders, stating “After the visit of Ali Osman Taha to Fashir in 2000, people felt that the situation was changing because Arabs stopped listening to the local government in Fashir. They acted as if they were directly backed by Khartoum.”154  A fifty-two-year old Tunjur man now working with the SLA claimed to have witnessed a 2003 visit by vice-president Taha to Um Siyala, a known militia camp east of Kutum in North Darfur. According to this witness, the vice-president “gave weapons to the Janjaweed. [I] was there when he visited the area.”155

Maj. Gen. Abduraheem Mohammed Hussein

The former minister of the interior and now minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Abduraheem Mohammed Hussein,156 appointed as presidential representative for Darfur in 2004, is also a key figure. Abduraheem Mohammed Hussein appears to have played a central role coordinating with regional civilian officials such as state governors and provincial commissioners in the implementation of the Darfur strategy of “ethnic cleansing.”  He and his deputy, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Haroun, were regularly in Darfur holding meetings with governors, commissioners, other local government representatives, military commanders, and security officials. Both were named by numerous witnesses who noted that their visits to Darfur and meetings with local officials always preceded military offensives and militia attacks. Several well-placed military officers named Hussein and Haroun as important figures in the coordination and planning of the military operations in Darfur.157

B. The Security Services

Numerous state security agencies are involved in intelligence gathering and various security functions in Darfur. Little is known about such agencies.  Gen. Salah Abdallah Ghosh, the general director of Security and Military Intelligence based in Khartoum, has overall responsibility and is considered by most Sudanese observers to have enormous authority over security matters, perhaps only after President El Bashir and Vice-President Osman Taha. High-level officials and army insiders have suggested that Salah Ghosh reported directly to Vice-President Osman Taha, but this has not been verified.158  A high-level officer in the armed forces told Human Rights Watch, “Security controls this country. The power is in Salah Ghosh. He can overrule the army and military intelligence.”159

Sudanese security officials have for many years been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention and torture.160 Selected security agents are believed to be liaisons with the Janjaweed leaders.  According to a well-informed Zalingei resident, “Security has its own unit collecting information and working inside the Arab tribes to defend security.”161  This claim was echoed by other credible sources, including Sudanese journalists who investigated events in Darfur. Not unexpectedly, the security services have some direct responsibilities within each state, and are members of the state security committees.  One local security chief in South Darfur told Human Rights Watch that he reported to the state governor, although there is no doubt also a direct reporting line to security chief Salah Ghosh in Khartoum.162

Military intelligence is also widely believed to have been an important contact and conduit for supplies for the Janjaweed. Human Rights Watch was told by a range of sources including UN officials, SLA members, and former members of the armed services that at least for Darfur operations, the main link between the Janjaweed and military intelligence was an armed forces officer from the Beni Hussein tribe, Gen. Al Hadi Adam Hamid, who reported to the deputy minister of the interior, Ahmed Mohammed Haroun.163 A former high-ranking officer in the armed forces noted Gen. Hamid’s contacts with the ministry of interior:

The military intelligence department was led by Al Hadi Adam Hamid, based in Khartoum. He travels to Darfur. The military intelligence department is shadow Janjaweed. Some officers such as Lt. Col. Abdel Wahid Said Ali Said [the military chief in Misteriya], Shukortalla, and Dafalla are military intelligence army officers who work with the Janjaweed. The links are with Ahmed Haroun and they take orders from him.164

An international investigator also noted the role of General Hamid and military intelligence as arms conduits for the militias:

The Janjaweed are PDF and border guards under the military intelligence. Maybe in Nyala and Geneina there are more PDF but the border guards have a different uniform and identification papers, they are directly under Military Intelligence. Gen. Al Hadi Adam Hamid is the head of the border guards. He was formerly the conduit for support to the Janjaweed—he even acknowledged to a U.S. military intelligence officer that he was the conduit.165 

[144] For an explanation of how the ruling National Congress (NC) party came to and maintains power in Sudan, see footnote 53.

[145] “Sudanese President Vows to Annihilate Darfur Rebels: Report,” Agence France-Presse, December 31, 2003.

[146] Human Rights Watch interviews, refugee camps, Chad, June 29, 2005 and July 2, 2005. 

[147] “How Did Darfur Happen?” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Darfur MP, Khartoum, September 27, 2004.

[149] Human Rights Watch interview with Darfur attorneys, Khartoum, September 26, 2004.

[150] Human Rights Watch, Famine in Sudan, 1998: The Human Rights Causes, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).

[151] Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of displaced people from across Darfur who consistently described fleeing to Sudanese army or police posts, or sending delegations of leaders to regional authorities to plead for army protection from the attacks. As the conflict continued and people became convinced they were being deliberately targeted, these pleas declined. Human Rights Watch interviews, Sudan and Chad, February 2004 – July 2005.

[152] Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Khartoum, Islam Salih, was detained for several weeks and convicted of “disseminating false information” by a Sudanese court in April 2004 after broadcasting stories about the abuses in Darfur in defiance of the Sudanese government’s clampdown.  Reporters sans Frontieres, “Call for Release of Al Jazeera Bureau Chief and End to Blackout on Reporting in Darfur,” Press Release, April 13, 2004 at

[153] Human Rights Watch interview with Zaghawa omda, North Darfur, July 26, 2004.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with Berti leaders and villagers, North Darfur, August 2, 2004.

[155] Human Rights Watch interview with Tunjur leader, North Darfur, August 4, 2004.

[156] Just prior to being appointed minister of defence, Abdulraheem Mohammed Hussein resigned his position as minister of interior—not because of his role in implementing and coordinating a policy of “ethnic cleansing,” but because of the collapse of a building in Khartoum. “Sudanese Minister of Interior Resigns Following Building Collapse,” at

[157] Human Rights Watch interviews, Khartoum, October 2004.

[158] Human Rights Watch interviews, Khartoum, October 2004.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview, anonymous, North Khartoum, October 21, 2004. 

[160] See numerous Amnesty International reports on Sudan at and also reports from the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT) at

[161] Human Rights Watch interview, Zalingei, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[162] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Azim Abdallah, Director of Security for South Darfur, Nyala, South Darfur, October 3, 2004.

[163] Confidential communications to Human Rights Watch from international observers and interviews in Khartoum and other locations, June, July, and October 2004. 

[164] Human Rights Watch interview, Khartoum, October 21, 2004.

[165] Human Rights Watch interviews, Khartoum, September 15 and October 21, 2004.

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