The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court charged Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir, with genocide yesterday, accusing him of masterminding a campaign to "destroy" three tribes in Darfur, killing 35,000 people and persecuting 2.5 million refugees.
Sudan's state television promptly showed footage of Mr Bashir dancing at a traditional ceremony, and dismissing the charges. "Whoever has visited Darfur, met officials and discovered their ethnicities and tribes ... will know that all of these things are lies," he said.
His efforts at building up a coalition of African, Arab and Asian support against the ICC also seemed to be paying dividends. Tanzania, which is chairing the African Union, called yesterday for the ICC to suspend the move "until we sort out the primary problems in Darfur and southern Sudan".
"If you arrest Bashir, you will create a leadership vacuum in Sudan. The outcome could be equal to that of Iraq," Tanzania's Foreign Minister, Bernard Membe, said.
Arab foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the charges and Sudan will also seek the support of close allies on the Security Council, including China, Russia and South Africa. It is the first time the ICC, based The Hague, has sought the arrest of a sitting head of state. In his landmark case, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor, said a three-year investigation had proved that ultimate responsibility for crimes in Darfur rested with the President. "The decision to start the genocide was taken by Bashir personally," he said. "Bashir is executing this genocide without gas chambers, without bullets, without machetes. It is a genocide by attrition."
Mr Ocampo charged the Sudanese President with three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and rape, and two counts of war crimes.
Armed groups from the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes launched a rebellion in Darfur in 2003, protesting at their marginalisation. Sudan's response was a brutal counter-insurgency, in which civilians were routinely targeted by government forces and Janjaweed militia. While President Bashir did not directly carry out attacks himself, he was the mastermind with "absolute control", the prosecutor said.
Hours after the charges were revealed, the BBC reported that the United Nations would withdraw all of its non-essential staff from Darfur. Prior to the indictment, there had been fears of a violent backlash against aid workers following protests in Khartoum.
Human rights activists welcomed the indictment. "Charging President Bashir for the hideous crimes in Darfur shows that no one is above the law," said Richard Dicker of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
But some analysts felt that the prosecutor was "over-reaching". Alex de Waal, a Sudan analyst at the Social Science Research Council in New York, said: "It will be very hard to prove he directly authorised these crimes." Others said the formal genocide charge might give the UN additional leverage to hammer out a peace deal. "The Security Council now has the option of saying if there are substantial steps towards peace we can put the prosecutions on hold," said Nick Grono, the deputy president of the International Crisis Group, a conflict analysis think-tank. "There is an incentive to the regime where there hasn't been in the past."
The onus now falls on the three pre-trial judges, from Brazil, Ghana and Lithuania, who will consider the evidence which Mr Ocampo's team have collected and, if they agree, will issue an arrest warrant.
The charges against Bashir
*Three counts of genocide for killing members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.
*Five counts of crimes against humanity for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape.
*Two counts of war crimes for attacks on civilian populations in Darfur.Reuse content