THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The president of Sudan became a wanted man Wednesday when the International Criminal Court charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur — its first action against a sitting head of state and one that could set the stage for more world leaders to be indicted.
President Omar al-Bashir's government retaliated by expelling 10 humanitarian groups from Darfur and seizing their assets, threatening lifesaving operations, a U.N. spokeswoman said.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States supported the court's action "to hold accountable those who are responsible for the heinous crimes in Darfur." Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes in the region.
U.N. officials in Sudan will continue to deal with al-Bashir because he remains the president of the country, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.
In the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the government denounced the warrant as part of a Western conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the vast oil-rich nation south of Egypt. "There will be no recognition of or dealing with the white man's court, which has no mandate in Sudan or against any of its people," the Information Ministry said.
Several thousand people waving pictures of al-Bashir and denouncing the court turned out in a rally in Khartoum. Some waved posters of chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo's face with pig ears superimposed to chants of, "Cowardly pig, you will not get to the Sudan."
Al-Bashir, who denies the accusations, drove through the capital after the warrant was announced, waving at crowds. Security was tightened at many embassies, and some diplomats and aid workers stayed home amid fears of retaliation against Westerners.
The decision by the court lays the groundwork for potential indictments of other heads of state who have been mentioned as possible targets of war crimes investigations, including leaders of other African nations and Israel.
"Head of state immunity no longer is a bar to prosecuting heads of state who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity during their time in office," said David Crane, an international law professor at Syracuse University and former prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal that indicted exiled Liberian President Charles Taylor and put him on trial in The Hague. After he left office, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was indicted by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Crane said the principle could even extend to former U.S. President George W. Bush over claims officials from his former administration may have engaged in torture by using coercive interrogation techniques on terror suspects.
Congressional Democrats and other critics have charged that some of the harsh interrogation techniques amounted to torture, a contention that Bush and other officials rejected.
The prospect of The Hague-based court ever trying Bush is considered extremely remote. The U.S. government does not recognize the court and the only other way it could be investigated is if the Security Council were to order it, something unlikely to happen with Washington a veto-wielding permanent member of the council.
The Security Council adopted a resolution ordering the International Criminal Court to investigate Darfur in 2005, leading to the charges against al-Bashir even though Sudan does not recognize the court's jurisdiction.
Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, said the ruling would likely fuel discussion about investigations of possible crimes by Bush administration officials.
"Often these international prosecutions have a way of spurring judicial action at the national level," he said.
Both Milosevic and Taylor were indicted by temporary courts. Wednesday's ruling is significant because the International Criminal Court is permanent.
Moreno Ocampo had accused Sudanese troops and the janjaweed Arab militia they support of murdering civilians and preying on them in refugee camps. He said the militia also waged a campaign of rape to drive women into the desert, where they die of starvation.
ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said that in issuing the warrant for the arrest of al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the three-judge panel said he is suspected of responsibility for "intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property."
But the judges said there was insufficient evidence to support charges of genocide.
If al-Bashir is brought to trial and prosecuted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The U.N. said the humanitarian groups Sudan had ordered expelled include Oxfam, Solidarities, Doctors Without Borders, CARE and Mercy Corps, and seized assets.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the move a "serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur," according to U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha confirmed that 10 "associations" were asked to stop operating in Sudan. He said they used humanitarian aid "as a cover" to conceal a political agenda.
African and Arab nations fear the warrant will destabilize the whole region, bring even more conflict in Darfur, and threaten the fragile peace deal that ended decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan. China, which buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil, supports the African and Arab positions.
Some African nations reportedly threatened to pull out of the court in retaliation for a warrant. Thirty African countries are among the court's 108 member states.
In a show of defiance Tuesday in anticipation of the decision, al-Bashir told supporters, "We are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it," a common Arabic insult meant to show extreme disrespect.
Efforts to arrest the president could be put in the spotlight later this month, with al-Bashir still planning to travel to Doha, Qatar, to attend an Arab Summit.
Crane predicted al-Bashir would eventually end up in The Hague.
"Omar al-Bashir will notice his standing in the world, his place in the African Union as well as his political support at home will begin to soften and dry up," Crane said by telephone. "People do not like to be seen dealing with an indicted war criminal."
Al-Bashir refuses to deal with the court, and there is no international mechanism to arrest him. The main tool the court has is diplomatic pressure for countries to hand over suspects.
Moreno Ocampo suggested al-Bashir could be arrested if he flies out of Sudan.
"As soon as Mr. al-Bashir travels in international airspace, his plane could be intercepted and he could be arrested. That is what I expect," the prosecutor said.
"Like Slobodan Milosevic or Charles Taylor, Omar al-Bashir's destiny is to face justice," Moreno Ocampo said.
Sudan refuses to arrest suspects, and U.N. peacekeepers and other international agencies in the country have no mandate to implement the warrant, and Sudanese officials have warned them not to try.
Asked why the judges did not issue the warrant for genocide, Blairon said genocide requires a clear intention to destroy in part or as a whole a specific group, and prosecution evidence failed to prove that intent.
She said prosecutors could ask again for genocide charges to be added to the warrant if they can produce new evidence. Moreno Ocampo said he would study the ruling before deciding whether to keep pursuing genocide charges.
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed condemned the warrant as "a recipe for disaster and anarchy," but said his country would not lobby for its suspension.
"Our demand now is to dismiss this whole criminal plot against our country," Mohamed said, adding that Khartoum's aim is "to find a lasting solution for the problem of Darfur."
The war in Sudan's western Darfur region began in 2003, when rebel ethnic African groups, complaining of discrimination and neglect, took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.