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Khartoum tightens grip on human rights activists

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-03-05

As the International Criminal Court prepares to issue an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, diplomats and NGOs alike worry that the response will be a crackdown on human rights activists in Darfur.

Is the law catching up with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir?

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to announce whether or not it will issue an arrest warrant against the Khartoum strongman, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur after he allegedly mobilized an illegal Arab militia called the Janjaweed to brutally crush a non-Arab rebellion in the region.

The Janjaweed have been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide against black African civilians. According to United Nations, the ongoing civil war has left 300,000 dead and more than 2.7 million refugees since 2003, with militia burning crops and villages, looting towns and killing or raping civilians. Sudan's government denies organizing the Janjaweed.

Initial talk of legal action against President Bashir began in July 2008, when ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo called for an arrest warrant to be issued against the Sudanese president. His request will most likely be met with a favourable response from judges in The Hague, but has caused quite a stir in political circles, angering several African leaders.

An NGO shut down, two journalists expelled

“I fear there may be some kind of retaliation against the warrant,” says Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of the Paris bureau of Human Rights Watch. “We just don’t know how strong the backlash will be”.

In the past few weeks, Sudanese authorities have put increasing pressure on all those it suspects of supporting the ICC.

“The regime is tightening the noose around all those involved with Human Rights within the territory,” says Caroline Baudot, director of the French branch of Crisis Action, an NGO dedicated to the Darfur crisis. “Activists are harassed constantly,” confirms Karine Bonneau, head of the justice department for the International Federation of Human Rights.

Last week, the government froze the assets of the Khartoum International Centre for Human Rights, one of the rare independent organizations in the country. It was then shut down by government authorities two days ago.

NGOs hope that the pressure applied by Khartoum won’t change the ICC’s course. “We only hope that the International Community will fully support any decision made in The Hague,” adds Bonneau.

In addition, two journalists were recently expelled from Sudan: Canadian-Egyptian reporter Heba Aly, who had worked for various media outlets, including United Nations news service IRIN, and FRANCE 24’s Zuhir Latif, a Tunisian.

UN fears

Members of the two UN missions deployed in Sudan are deeply concerned that things will turn sour. Many in the New York headquarters fear that an arrest warrant against the Sudanese president may compromise the security peacekeeping troops in the field, especially as President Bashir has spent the past week touring the country to rally popular support for his cause and whip up national sentiment against any western legal initiative.

The movement for Justice and Equality (JEM), one of the main Darfur rebel groups, believes that the government could undertake “criminal action” if the arrest warrant is issued. It warns that “any act of violence will be met with violence”.

Fardeau tempers the idea of  the risk of a violent uprising in the region. “It seems that the Sudanese government’s response to an arrest warrant will be moderate,” he says, explaining that Khartoum’s scope of action is limited without the support of its traditional allies, such as China. “At the moment, China is pushing for durable stability in the south of the country, where it exploits valuable oil fields.”

But will the more extremist fringe of the Sudanese government listen to Chinese appeals for stability? Nothing is less certain. “Al-Bashir’s regime is completely irrational,” concludes Crisis Action’s Baudet.

Date created : 2009-03-03