Wanted for genocide, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir should have been arrested as soon as he hit the tarmac in Chad last night; instead he was given the warmest of welcomes and handed the keys to the capital N'djamena.
The Sudanese leader thumbed his nose at prosecutors – who want him to stand trial for atrocities committed in Darfur – and made his first visit to a member state of the International Criminal Court.
With no police force of its own, the court relies on its members to arrest fugitives, but Chadian President, Idriss Deby, seemingly unfazed by the potential damage to his international reputation, went to greet his one-time enemy President Bashir at the airport.
"Chad should not shield President Bashir from international justice," said Christopher Hall, the senior legal advisor at Amnesty International. "His visit is an opportunity to enforce the arrest warrant and send a message that justice will prevail."
Elise Keppler, who works for the international justice division of Human Rights Watch, noted that there had been "almost visits" by Mr Bashir to Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and Denmark. "None of these have materialised. Chad has really broken rank here. Does it really want this special status?" she said.
Chad became a full member of the ICC in 2007 but yesterday Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat shrugged off the obligations that came with that membership. "The priority for us is assuring peace and stability with Sudan," he told reporters.
Relations between the two neighbours have been strained since Darfur rebels – many of whom belong to the same Zaghawa tribe as Chad's President Deby – took up arms in early 2003 accusing Khartoum of neglecting the far west region. However, in February this year, Sudan and Chad signed an agreement to put an end to their proxy war, agreeing to stop supporting each others' insurgents and reopen diplomatic relations.
Three months later, the Chadian leader flew to Khartoum to attend the inauguration ceremony for President Bashir's new term, an event shunned by much of the world after a controversial re-election. The fact Sudan's indicted head of state felt confident enough to make yesterday's trip to N'djamena, where he will attend a regional summit, has been seen as further proof that the one-time foes have hit the reset button.
"If there was one per cent of a doubt about Deby, we would never let Bashir go," one source in Sudan's presidency told Reuters. Chadian Interior Minister, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, was equally categorical: "Bashir will not be arrested in Chad," he said. "He will return home safe and sound."
Genocide – with all its echoes of the 20th century's worst atrocities – was added to the charge sheet against Mr Bashir only last week. He was already the first sitting head of state issued with an arrest warrant by the ICC, accused of ordering mass murder, rape and torture. "Implementing the warrant is the state [parties'] responsibility," said Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC's chief prosecutor. "It's not a past genocide, it's an ongoing genocide."
Ms Keppler, of Human Rights Watch, urged Chad to fall in with international opinion. "It's not too late. Mr Bashir is there until the end of the week," she said. "There is still time for Chad to wake up and take action."
She noted that former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, camped out in Nigeria for years before international pressure forced the government to swoop and detain him. He is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes. "So I would urge all ICC parties to pick up the phone to Chad and make it clear that this is not going to fly," she said.Reuse content