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(New York) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant against Sudan’s president is a significant step towards ending impunity for the horrific crimes in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 14, 2008, the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, asked Pre-Trial Chamber I to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.

“Charging President al-Bashir for the hideous crimes in Darfur shows that no one is above the law,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “It is the prosecutor’s job to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of official position.”

The ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber will review the information in the prosecutor’s application to determine whether to grant the request for a warrant. If the Pre-Trial Chamber judges are satisfied that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that al-Bashir has committed ICC crimes and that arrest is necessary to bring him to trial, it will issue the warrant.

Since 2003, Sudanese government forces and government-backed militias known as “Janjaweed” have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes on a massive scale as part of counter-insurgency operations in Darfur. They have directly attacked civilian populations from land and air and have carried out widespread summary execution, rape, torture, and pillaging of property.

In a December 2005 report, “Entrenching Impunity: Government responsibility for international crimes in Darfur,” Human Rights Watch called for investigations of senior Sudanese government officials, including al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes. To date, no senior officials have been brought to justice in Sudan for these massive crimes. The Sudanese government has shown no willingness to end its deliberate attacks on civilians in Darfur – attacks which continue to this day.

“The warrant request against President al-Bashir is one step towards ending the environment of total impunity that continues in Sudan today,” said Dicker. “The warrant in no way lessens the government’s obligations to ensure protection of civilians and justice for abuses carried out in Darfur.”
Human Rights Watch called upon Sudan to abide by its agreement to permit deployment of the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID) as set out in Security Council Resolution 1769. Under international humanitarian law, Sudan is also required to ensure the full, safe, and unhindered access of humanitarian relief to all those in need in Darfur, in particular to internally displaced persons and refugees.

On March 31, 2005, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC prosecutor. In April 2007, the ICC issued its first arrest warrants against State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kosheib for their leading roles in crimes in West Darfur. The Sudanese government has refused to surrender the first two suspects. On June 16, 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously called on Sudan to cooperate with the ICC.

In his June 2008 briefing to the Security Council, ICC Prosecutor Moreno Ocampo announced that he had collected evidence of a “criminal plan based on the mobilization of the whole state apparatus, including the armed forces, the intelligence services, the diplomatic and public information bureaucracies, and the justice system.”

The Security Council’s referral to the ICC stemmed from the January 2005 UN International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur report to the UN secretary-general. The report found that the government of Sudan and its allied Janjaweed militias were responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law amounting to crimes under international law and strongly recommended referral to the ICC. The commission created a sealed list of 51 suspects bearing further investigation, including a number of senior government officials and military commanders. The list was handed over to the UN secretary-general with the recommendation that it be disclosed to the ICC prosecutor.

“It is hardly news that senior leaders in Khartoum are implicated in the devastation in Darfur, but it is noteworthy that the request for criminal charges has been brought against the person at the top,” said Dicker.

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