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UNITED NATIONS – The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court urged Sudan's transitional authorities on Wednesday to hand over or prosecute ousted President Omar al-Bashir and four others for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
Fatou Bensouda told the U.N. Security Council she is ready to work with authorities "to ensure that the Darfur suspects face independent and impartial justice" either at the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands, or in Sudan if its court meets international standards.
Bensouda said she didn't underestimate "the complexity and fluidity of the events unfolding in Sudan," but declared it was now time to act and ensure that the ICC suspects face justice.
Negotiations on Sudan's transition following al-Bashir's ouster in April collapsed after a violent crackdown on a protest camp in the capital Khartoum by security forces. Protesters demanding civilian rule say at least 128 people have been killed across the country since security forces moved in to clear the sit-in area outside the military's headquarters on June 3. Authorities put the death toll at 61, including three from security forces.
Bensouda joined many council members in calling for an end to violence against civilians, including alleged sexual and gender-based crimes, which has spread beyond Khartoum to other regions, including Darfur.
"As for Sudan itself, it is now at a crossroads with the opportunity to depart from its previous policy of complete non-cooperation with my office and embark on a new chapter by signaling a new commitment to accountability for the victims in the Darfur situation," she said.
Sudan is not a party to the ICC and al-Bashir's government refused to recognize its jurisdiction. Sudanese minister Elsadig Ali Ahmed told the council Wednesday that "despite the change of the political situation in Sudan ... our position remains the same, unchanged."
He told the council that Sudan has begun "the pursuit of a civilian democratic rule where there is no room for impunity," and the new political reality "will undoubtedly lead to the establishment of a regime where freedom and democracy and the rule of law prevail."
For Sudan, he emphasized "that combating impunity is a noble purpose of justice ... and it primarily falls within the responsibilities of the national judiciary." He called the ICC principle mentioned by Bensouda of letting national governments prosecute war crimes if their courts meet the right standards "positive."
Al-Bashir appeared in public for the first time Sunday when he was led to a prosecutor's office in a corruption investigation.
Ahmed said it has been announced that al-Bashir's trial will begin next week, and he said the public prosecutor is also investigating two other detainees sought by the ICC, Abdel Raheem Hussein and Ahmad Harun.
A judicial official with the prosecutor's office said al-Bashir was questioned over accusations that include money laundering and the possession of large amounts of foreign currency. He said the probe partly related to millions of dollars' worth of cash in U.S. dollars, euros and Sudanese pounds that were found in al-Bashir's home a week after his ouster.
Bensouda noted that the transitional military council now ruling Sudan made a commitment in its inaugural address on April 11 to all local, regional and international treaties, charters and conventions.
She said this pledge must including a commitment to the U.N. Charter, which requires Sudan to comply with Security Council resolutions — including the 2005 resolution that referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC.
The vast western Darfur region of Sudan was gripped by bloodshed in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The government was accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes known as the janjaweed and unleashing them on civilian populations — a charge it denies.
Bensouda said Sudan has a legal obligation to surrender the suspects in custody or prosecute them on charges in ICC warrants — including genocide allegations against al-Bashir — and to surrender two others still at large, senior janjaweed commander Ali Kushayb and Abdallah Banda, commander of the Justice and Equality rebel group. She stressed that this must include safe and unfettered access for ICC staff to Sudan and Darfur.
Elise Keppler, associate director for Human Rights Watch's international justice program, said the situation in Sudan has changed and the new authority "has the opportunity to meet Sudan's international legal obligations to surrender Omar al-Bashir and the other suspects to face justice at the ICC as the Darfur victims so deserve more than 10 years later."