(Brussels) - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Pope Benedict XVI should call on the government of Sudan to fulfill its legal duty to arrest International Criminal Court suspects when Sudan's President Omar al Bashir visits today, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the visit of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Sudan last week, the Sudanese government appointed International Criminal Court (ICC) suspect Ahmed Haroun to chair a committee designated to hear human rights complaints from victims of abuse in war-torn Darfur. Haroun, who is currently the state minister of humanitarian affairs, is wanted by the ICC for 42 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. ICC judges found "reasonable grounds to believe" that Haroun is responsible for persecuting, raping, attacking and killing civilians in four western Darfur villages in 2003 and 2004. Evidence indicates Haroun recruited, paid and supplied arms to the government-backed "Janjaweed" militias who carried out the attacks. Human Rights Watch named Haroun as one of the government leaders implicated in serious international crimes in Darfur in 2003-2004 in its December 2005 report "Entrenching Impunity".  
 
"Nominating a suspected war criminal to hear human rights complaints from Darfur's victims is outrageous and shows the government's utter disregard for their plight," said Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The Italian government cannot stand by silently while President Bashir is in Rome, the birthplace of the International Criminal Court."  
 
In letters to Italy's Prime Minister Prodi and Pope Benedict XVI, Human Rights Watch urged that they press President Bashir to fulfill Sudan's obligation to surrender the suspects to the ICC and to fully cooperate with the court's investigations. Prime Minister Prodi should indicate that failure to carry out the warrants may result in targeted punitive sanctions by the international community against high-ranking Sudanese officials, including travel bans and asset seizures.  
 
On March 31, 2005, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC prosecutor. Arrest warrants for Ahmed Haroun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kosheib were issued on April 27, 2007. Security Council Resolution 1593 obligates Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC.  
 
"Haroun's nomination is a test of the international community's commitment to justice for the victims of Darfur," said Leicht. "Justice is not a dispensable item and we expect strong statements on this issue from the pope and the prime minister."