- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

KHARTOUM, Sudan | Islamic scholars have told Sudan’s president not to travel to an Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March, state media reported on Sunday, a move that offers him a way out of the risky trip.

President Omar Bashir risks being detained if he leaves Sudan because the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for him earlier this month to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

The Sudanese government said shortly after the ICC decision that Lt. Gen. Bashir would defy the warrant by travelling to the Doha summit - and later confirmed the visit by formally accepting an invitation from the Qatari government.

But a series of senior Sudanese officials have released statements in recent days raising questions over the wisdom of the trip, prompting speculation that they were preparing the ground for a decision to send another representative instead.

The influential Sudan Ulema Authority issued a statement late Saturday saying Gen. Bashir should not travel, the state Sudanese Media Center reported.

International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.7 million driven from their homes in almost six years of fighting in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

The government is not bound by rulings from the Ulema Authority, but the body of scholars is widely respected in Sudan and has real authority.

The statement said the authority advised Gen. Bashir in a fatwa, or Islamic legal ruling, that it was “impermissible for you to travel for this mission, which others can do in your place.”

“It is no secret to you that the enemy is lurking around you and your country and your religion,” it added, citing precedents from history in which Islamic leaders and forces had decided on caution as the best option in their campaigns.

Qatar is not a member of the International Criminal Court and would have no legal obligation to arrest the president if he entered its territory.

The ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has warned in the past that any plane carrying Gen. Bashir in international airspace could be intercepted, but the court has no enforcement apparatus of its own.

Sudanese presidential spokesman Mahjoub Fadul told Reuters, “It is too early to say whether the president will travel.”

The Arab League and the African Union, backed by China and Russia, have called on the U.N. Security Council to use its power to suspend the ICC indictment of Gen. Bashir.

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