- - Sunday, June 14, 2015

JOHANNESBURG — In a move that blindsided both the guest and the host, a South African court Sunday issued an order barring Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir from leaving South Africa after attending a summit of African leaders in Johannesburg because he faces an arrest warrant as a war criminal.

The order was issued a day after the International Criminal Court asked South African officials to comply with a 2009 warrant issued at The Hague for Gen. Bashir’s arrest, a request the government said it would not honor.

The issue sheds a new spotlight on the Darfur legal case and on the reach of the ICC, which has struggled for legitimacy in recent years as it takes on a slate of more controversial cases.

Gen. Bashir, 71, in power since 1989, became the first sitting leader to be indicted as a war criminal.

The warrant relates to a five-year counterinsurgency campaign in Sudan’s Darfur region by the Khartoum government from 2003.

The United Nations said the campaign, which many labeled as a genocide, killed more than 300000 people and displaced 2.5 million others.

South Africa is a member of the ICC and has an obligation to arrest Gen. Bashir under international law.

When President Jacob Zuma, who was hosting the African Union summit, failed to comply, a local human rights group brought the application to compel Pretoria to issue the warrant of arrest for Gen. Bashir.

At the High Court in Pretoria, Judge Hans Fabricius ruled that it was not possible on a Sunday to hear all arguments. Instead, he issued an order to the Home Affairs Ministry, which controls border security, to bar Gen. Bashir from boarding his flight back to Khartoum until a full hearing could be held Monday at 11:30 a.m.

The Sudanese president wore a blue three-piece suit, a tie and a smile as cameras flashed for a group photo with other African leaders at the summit Sunday. The conference was scheduled to end Monday, and the status of Gen. Bashir was unclear late Sunday.

In Johannesburg, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, executive director of the South African Litigation Center, which petitioned the court, said her organization first drew up papers in 2009 for the arrest of Gen. Bashir when he planned to attend the inauguration of Mr. Zuma in Pretoria, though that visit was canceled.

The court action was supported by Amnesty International, whose research director for Africa, Netsanet Belay, described the Sudanese leader as “a fugitive from justice.”

Mr. Belay said that if the Zuma government failed to arrest the Sudanese president, it would have given succor “to a leader who is accused of being complicit in the killing, maiming and torture of hundreds of thousands of people in a conflict that has blighted the lives of millions.”

However, Mr. Zuma’s ruling African National Congress, which opposed the ICC warrant, said in a statement, “The International Criminal Court is no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended,” and made clear it believed Gen. Bashir had immunity because he was attending an international event and was not in South Africa as a private citizen.

In a swipe at the United States, the statement said it was unacceptable that “gross human violations committed by nonsignatory countries go unpunished.”

The U.S. is not a member of the ICC and not subject to its rulings, but Washington has been accused of using the court to settle scores with countries opposed to American policy objectives.

In Khartoum, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it believed Gen. Bashir would leave South Africa as scheduled, regardless of the order, The Associated Press reported.

Kamal Ismail, the Sudanese state minister for foreign affairs, told reporters in Khartoum that Gen. Bashir received assurances from the South African government prior to his visit that he would be welcome and would be allowed to return to Sudan on schedule.

He said the court order seeking to prevent the president from leaving South Africa “has nothing to do with the reality on the ground there” and “until now things are normal and there is no threat to the life of the president of the republic.”

There is clear resentment in the developing world about some of the actions of the ICC, which critics claim is far more sympathetic to claims from powerful Western nations than to less-wealthy or less-influential countries.

Even before Sunday’s events, the African Union had asked the ICC to stop proceedings against sitting presidents and said it would not compel any member states to arrest a leader on behalf of the court.

Gen. Bashir has traveled abroad before without local authorities detaining him at the behest of The Hague-based International Criminal Court, the AP reported.

The court’s move puts the South African government in a legal bind, torn between its obligation as a signatory to the Rome Statute that set up the ICC and its pledge to the African Union as host that leaders such as Gen. Bashir would be immune from legal harassment while in the country for the summit.

“It’s an absolute lose-lose situation,” Dirk Kotze, politics professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, told the Bloomberg News service. “They are really in a fix. If they do arrest him, they will probably be criticized by most other African countries. I think they will probably let him go.”

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