Sudan chose a path fraught with danger when it announced its intention on Tuesday to hand the country's former president Omar Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), analysts told The National.
Al Bashir will stand trial at the tribunal in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur during the 2000s. The former president was removed by the military in April 2019 following months of countrywide protests against his 29-year-dictatorship.
The decision to surrender Al Bashir, 76, to the ICC followed a surprise meeting last week between Sudan’s transitional head of state Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Analysts described the events as part of the country’s frantic efforts to ease its way back into the international fold after decades of isolation and international sanctions triggered by Al Bashir’s oppressive policies at home and his links to militant groups.
Sudan, which is facing an acute economic crisis, is on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, preventing the vast Afro-Arab nation from rescheduling its foreign debt or receiving economic assistance from international donors.
Gen Al Burhan said his meeting with the Israeli leader was designed to serve Sudan’s national interests and would help his country remove its name from the US list.
Tuesday’s announcement by a cabinet minister and a member of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council - the 11-member collective presidency that has ruled the country since August 2019 - said the decision to hand Al Bashir over was a prerequisite for reaching a comprehensive and enduring peace agreement with rebel groups in the west Sudanese region of Darfur. No date has yet been announced for the handover.
The war in Darfur broke out in 2003 when rebel groups rose up against Sudan’s Arab-dominated government, which they accused of oppressing the region’s non-Arab population.
Al Bashir’s Islamist government responded with scorched-earth offensives, including aerial bombings that targeted rebels and civilians, wiping out entire villages in Darfur. Authorities also enlisted the help of local militias in the fight. These militiamen committed some of the worst war crimes against civilians in the conflict, including mass rapes and extrajudicial executions.
The war, which subsided in 2010, is estimated to have killed around 300,000 people and displaced about 2.7 million, according to United Nations estimates.
Alongside Al Bashir, the four other indicted men include Abdel-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, who served as Interior Minister and Minister of National Defense during the Darfur conflict. Another is Ahmed Haroun, a senior security chief and a close former aide to Al Bashir. All three are currently in detention in Khartoum. Two more, a militia chief and a senior rebel, are still at large.
Speaking to The National, two analysts said the decision to hand Al Bashir over to the ICC for trial would likely trigger a destabilizing backlash by Islamists loyal to the former president and possibly lead to the incrimination of top generals who are still in active service or current members of the transitional government.
The latter, they said, could undermine a power-sharing agreement reached in August between the military and an opposition coalition, potentially derailing the country’s transition to democratic rule.
"Al Bashir will likely not cooperate with the court if he is handed over for trial," said Rasha Awad, editor in chief of the Sudanese online news service Al Taghyeer.
“But he may also cooperate if only to take revenge on the generals who removed him from power and open fire on any one of them who served in Darfur during the war,” she added.
Gen Al Burhan is on record saying that the military will not surrender Al Bashir to the ICC and that he should be tried before Sudanese courts for his alleged crimes in Darfur.
Al Bashir was convicted of corruption in December 2019 and sentenced to two years in a correctional facility. He is now facing charges linked to the shooting and killing of protesters during the uprising against his rule, which began in December 2018 and lasted until his removal by the military last April.
Attiyah Issawi, a prominent Egyptian expert on African affairs, said that while the decision to surrender Al Bashir to the ICC will certainly facilitate peace negotiations over Darfur, the move could spur homegrown militants loyal to the former president to try and destabilise the country with terror attacks.
“My personal view is that the government should persuade the rebels and the ICC to accept that Al Bashir be tried at home,” he said. “This way, a much worse situation can be avoided.”
But Ms Awad contends that a trial of Al Bashir before the ICC is a key demand of the opposition movement that led the uprising against Al Bashir and of Sudanese living in “marginalised” regions like Darfur.
“Such a trial will go a long way in satisfying not just the Darfur rebels, but also those fighting against the government in the western region of southern Kordofan and Blue Nile province south of Khartoum,” she said.
“The judiciary has not been restructured to match Sudan’s shift to democratic rule and it’s packed with Al Bashir loyalists who owe their jobs, not to their qualification or experience, but to their political loyalty.”
One of Al Bashir's lawyers told Reuters news service on Tuesday that the former Sudanese leader would refuse to deal with the ICC on the grounds that it is a "political court" and that Sudan's judiciary was able to deal with any case.
The first warrant for Al Bashir's arrest was issued by the ICC in March 2009, followed by a second in July 2010.
He is charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of genocide committed during the Darfur conflict between 2003 and 2008. In 2009, he became the first sitting president to be indicted by the ICC. Until his overthrow in April last year, Al Bashir had been able to travel relatively freely across Africa and the Arab world, without fear of arrest.