JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Describing a systematic government campaign to decimate the people of Darfur, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor on Monday charged the president of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, with genocide and war crimes and called for his arrest.
The charges are the first to be brought against a sitting head of state by the five-year-old court. While it remains to be seen whether it'll help to end the conflict in Darfur — the vast western region of Sudan that for six years has been racked by fighting between government-backed militias and several rebel factions — human rights groups said that Bashir's indictment was a step toward ending impunity for war crimes.
The court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo of Argentina, said that he'd chronicled state-sponsored violence in Darfur over the past five years and had concluded that Bashir had "masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa," the three main ethnic groups in Darfur.
In response to a rebel uprising in Darfur, Moreno Ocampo said, Bashir sent government forces and Arab militias known as janjaweed to destroy villages inhabited by those three groups. On Bashir's orders, pro-government forces slaughtered some 35,000 civilians beginning in March 2003 and raped thousands of women and girls, he said.
Bashir, who became president in 1989, also has used his near-total control over Sudan's political and security structures to thwart efforts to help the nearly 2.5 million Darfurians who've become refugees in their own land, Moreno Ocampo said. Bashir's government "consistently obstructs or blocks humanitarian assistance" and has stationed militias on the outskirts of displacement camps to terrorize the inhabitants, he said.
More than 100,000 civilians — the vast majority of them from Darfur's main ethnic groups — have endured "slow death" from hunger, illness and poor living conditions in the camps, according to court documents.
"(Bashir) is the mastermind behind the alleged crimes," Moreno Ocampo said. "He has absolute control."
A three-judge panel now must determine whether to issue a warrant for Bashir's arrest, a process that could take months. Sudan, which isn't a party to the court, has ignored warrants issued last year for two other Darfur suspects: Ahmed Haroun, a humanitarian affairs minister in Bashir's government, and alleged janjaweed commander Ali Kosheib.
Sudanese government spokesman Rabbie Abdel Atti said that the case against Bashir "will be resisted by all political means."
Since news of the charges surfaced late last week, diplomats, analysts and humanitarian officials have resumed a fierce debate over whether international courts help to end conflicts or merely prolong them.
In northern Uganda, the leader of a long-running insurgent movement called the Lord's Resistance Army has refused to sign a peace agreement unless the court lifts a warrant for his arrest.
Some experts warned that Bashir's indictment could produce a backlash in Sudan, where another truce, which ended a 21-year civil war in the southern part of the country, also is hanging by a thread.
The International Crisis Group, an independent research center, said that hard-liners in Bashir's government could scuttle the southern peace agreement or the stalled peace talks for Darfur. They also could try to block the deployment of a larger, United Nations-led peacekeeping force in Darfur, as well as what's become the world's largest humanitarian-relief operation.
"These are significant risks, particularly given that the likelihood of actually executing any warrant issued against Bashir is remote, at least in the short term," the group said in a statement.
Andrew Natsios, the former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said that the threat of prosecution would embolden Bashir to stay in power by any means necessary.
"Free and fair elections are now much less likely, if they ever happen," Natsios wrote on the Web site of the Social Science Research Council. "This indictment may well shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement for the country."
Others hailed Moreno Ocampo's move, saying that responsibility for ending the conflict and protecting civilians rested with the U.N. Security Council.
Nearly a year after the authorization of the U.N. peacekeeping force, few new troops have arrived and U.N. member countries haven't provided the underfunded mission with the equipment — such as helicopters and light trucks — needed to patrol a region the size of Texas.
"The court is doing exactly what it was charged with doing," said Amjad Atallah, the senior director of international policy and advocacy for the Save Darfur Coalition, a U.S.-based advocacy group. "We hope that the rest of the international community and the U.N. Security Council begin to rise up to the same level of activity."
Bashir, who appeared Sunday at a protest that the government organized in anticipation of the indictment, huddled Monday with top officials and was expected to begin a diplomatic campaign to convince African and Arab nations to support him, said Atti, the government spokesman.
"This will affect the situation in Darfur and the peace process that has come so far with a lot of steps taken by the government," Atti said. "This is a very serious step by the ICC, and it will create disturbances."
A summary of the case on the International Criminal Court's Web site: http://www.icc-cpi.int/library/organs/otp/ICC-OTP-Summary-20081704-ENG.pdf