African Union asks Security Council to delay genocide prosecution of Sudan's president

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The African Union asked the U.N. Security Council in a letter circulated on Friday to delay for a year the prosecution of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and other alleged crimes.

The 53-nation continent-wide organization said it wants the delay because a trial of al-Bashir would interfere with efforts to end the seven-year conflict in western Darfur.

"The processes under way in the Sudan are too critical to the future of the country and the stability of the region and the continent as a whole to be allowed to fail," the African Union's U.N. observer, Tete Antonio, said.

His letter was made public hours before a high-level meeting on Sudan on the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting. President Barack Obama and other leaders focused mostly on a crucial referendum on southern independence scheduled for January, but prospects for peace in Darfur were also raised.

Last year judges at the International Criminal Court issued a warrant against al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In July, the judges added three counts of genocide, the first time the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal has issued genocide charges.

The Rome statute that set up the court allows the U.N. Security Council, under Article 16, to pass a resolution to defer or suspend for a year the investigation or prosecution of a case. It also gives the council authority to renew such a resolution.

But Al-Bashir's prosecution at this time could hinder attempts to resolve the Darfur crisis as well as issues stemming from the 2005 north-south peace agreement that ended a 21-year civil war and authorized an independence referendum next year, said Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika, who chairs the AU.

In the letter to the council dated Sept. 15, Antonio said the AU's Assembly and Peace and Security Council have consistently noted "with regret" that al-Bashir's indictment "came at a critical juncture in the process to promote lasting peace, reconciliation and democratic governance in the Sudan."

"In making the request for the Security Council to make use of its powers under Article 16 of the Rome statute to defer the proceedings against him, the AU is in no way condoning impunity," he said, stressing that "it is imperative ... to bring to justice the perpetrators of gross human rights violations in that region."

Antonio asked the U.N. Security Council for "positive consideration" of the AU request to approve a resolution delaying al-Bashir's prosecution.

How the U.N.'s most powerful body reacts remains to be seen.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an interview with The Associated Press that he had not seen the letter.

"We have supported the International Criminal Court indictment and will continue to do so. And, of course, we will always look at what the African Union said," Hague said.

Richard Dicker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the AU statement that by seeking the delay it did not intend to condone impunity, "but for that commitment to have meaning, words have to be translated into policy, and to date specifically in regard to the AU's own recommendations to end impunity in Darfur, there's been no result and very little sign of effort."