A South African Court has issued an interim order stopping Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, who faces war crimes charges, from leaving the country. He is currently in South Africa attending the African Union Summit Conference of Heads of State and Government.
The South African court’s decision brings to mind the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, while he was attending a summit in Accra, Ghana in 2003, but managed to escape to Liberia.
In the case of Mr. Bashir, the Pretoria High Court says he must stay until it rules today, Monday on whether he should be handed over to the ICC.
He is accused of committing war crimes, genocide during the Darfur conflict and crimes against humanity.
Earlier, President Bashir was welcomed by South African officials when he arrived in Johannesburg. After the court announced the hearing, he posed for a group photo with other African leaders, the BBC has said.
The High Court initially said it would hear the request to have him arrested yesterday, Sunday. But it later postponed the hearing until today, Monday when the summit is due to end.
There are tensions between the ICC and the AU, with some on the continent accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africans. The AU has previously urged the ICC to stop proceedings against sitting leaders.
The warrant against Mr. Bashir, who denies the allegations, has severely restricted his overseas travel.
He has, however, visited friendly states in Africa and the Middle East.
AU leaders have complex issues to tackle, from political unrest to Islamist insurgencies.
Analysis: Andrew Harding, BBC Africa Correspondent
South Africa has often shied away from this sort of diplomatic headache, but this time the government has stepped straight, and deliberately, into the controversy, courting Western fury by rolling out the welcome carpet for President Bashir.
The South African Government must, surely, have foreseen the possibility of a legal challenge. If President Bashir is allowed to return home unimpeded,
South Africa’s actions will be bitterly condemned internationally, if less loudly within the continent, as a blow against the credibility of the ICC.
And if Sudan’s president is detained, or perhaps even arrested, then Pretoria will be accused of luring a fellow African leader into a trap. Some would call that a no-win situation.
But it is clear that South Africa’s Government has chosen to flaunt its growing antipathy (opposition) towards “Western” rules, and towards a court in which so many African leaders now appear to have lost faith.
The ICC has issued two arrest warrants against Mr. Bashir. The court relies on member states to carry out arrests.
However correspondents have said the South African government, a signatory to the treaty establishing the ICC, is unlikely to move against the Sudanese leader.
South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) said immunity had been granted to “all (summit) participants as part of the international norms for countries hosting such a gathering of the AU or even the United Nations.”
Among the African leaders at the summit is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, but human rights organizations and South Africa’s main opposition party have also called for Mr. Bashir’s arrest.
Darfur has been in conflict since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government. The UN says more than 300,000 people have died, mostly from disease. Hundreds of villages have been attacked.
More than two million people, about a third of the population, have fled their homes. Sudanese forces and allied militias are accused of oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs.
The Johannesburg summit is chaired by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who holds the rotating presidency of the AU. The official theme is, “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development.”
But the political turmoil in Burundi, crisis in South Sudan and the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa has also been featured heavily.
Profile: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s career has been defined by war. He came to power in a coup in 1989 and has ever since ruled with an iron fist what was until this year Africa’s largest country.
When he seized power, Sudan was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between north and south.
Although his government signed a deal to end that conflict in 2005, another one was breaking out at the same time – in the western region of Darfur, where
President Bashir is accused of organizing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“He is a man for whom dignity and pride are very important and one who is quite hot-headed – prone to angry outbursts, especially when he feels his pride has been wounded,” Sudan analyst Alex de Waal told the BBC News website.
Despite the international arrest warrant, he was re-elected as president in April 2010.
Before taking the helm, he was a commander in the army, responsible for leading operations in the south against the late rebel leader John Garang.
When he signed the peace deal with Garang and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Bashir took pains to stress the deal had not been a defeat.
“We did not sign it after we had been broken. We signed it while we were at the peak of our victories,” he said.
Accusations against Omar al-Bashir
He has often been accused of killing members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, thereby causing these groups serious bodily or mental harm and inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about these groups’ physical destruction.
His goal was always to keep a unified Sudan, but a referendum on secession for South Sudan was agreed as part of the peace deal.
In the January 2011 referendum, some 99 percent of South Sudanese voted in favor of separation. The independent state of South Sudan was declared six months later.
While he agreed to let South Sudan go, Bashir’s attitude to Darfur, where a conflict has raged since 2003 when rebels took up arms against alleged government discrimination, has been characterized by belligerence.
But he denies international accusations that he has backed Arab Janjaweed militias accused of war crimes against the region’s black African communities.
For years, Mr. Bashir resisted the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur and any criticism from the West tends to make him and his allies dig in their heels.
“We are telling those people who are saying that they want to put pressure on the Khartoum government that we will remain firm and never bow to anyone except the Almighty God,” he told cheering crowds in 2004.
It is at these rallies, often dressed in his military uniform, that Mr. Bashir seems in his element – waving his walking stick in the air.
He is shyer when it comes to the media and rarely gives one-to-one interviews.
Correspondents say this may be because he is not very articulate, unlike his former enemy, John Garang, who died not long after becoming national vice-president.
Bashir is a military person who has been in power for a while and he wants to assert military power, Hassan al-Turabi, Islamist leader said.
But this means, says Mr. de Waal, that the president is often underestimated.
“He is smarter than he appears. He’s somebody who apparently has a huge grasp of detail, but he’s very conscious of the fact that he’s not highly educated,” Mr de Waal says.
He is said to enjoy a better relationship with Garang’s successor, Salva Kiir, precisely because the two men are career soldiers – ill at ease with clever, well-spoken politicians.
Born in 1944 into a farming family, Mr. Bashir joined the army as a young man and rose through the ranks. He fought in the Egyptian army in the 1973 war against Israel.
As head of state, his game has largely remained soldiering, the political leadership being taken by two other figures.
The first in the 1990s was Hassan al-Turabi, a prominent Sunni Muslim, who advocates an Islamic state and ushered in a bill introducing Sharia to all provinces, but the South.
After they fell out in 2000, Mr. Turabi told the BBC: “He is a military person who has been in power for a while and he wants to assert military power.”
Then Osman Ali Taha, who negotiated the north-south deal and is now first vice-president, came to the fore. But his influence has since waned and the president has taken centre stage.
“Bashir has emerged as exercising more power himself. There’s no one figure that overshadows him,” says Mr. de Waal.
Mr. Bashir’s longevity in office, de Waal adds, is probably down to the fact that powerful rivals in the ruling National Congress Party distrust each other more than they do Mr Bashir.
Oil money flows – and leaves
Little is known about the Sudanese leader’s private life. He has no children and in his 50s took a second wife.
He married the widow of Ibrahim Shams al-Din, considered a war hero in the north – as an example to others, Mr. de Waal said.
The long civil war had seen many colleagues fall, and he implored others to marry again so war widows could be taken care of.
Mr. Bashir has presided over a flourishing economy. When he became president, it was punishable by death to be found in possession of US dollars.
For a while, there were pockets full of dollars as the oil flowed. Controls were lifted and the telecommunications system revolutionized.
But the South took three-quarters of the country’s oil with it and belts are now being tightened in Khartoum.
Mr. Bashir denies accusations that access to government funds and oil money was an underlying cause of the unrest in Darfur.
“In reality, the gist of the Darfur problem is just traditional conflict over resources, which has been coated with claims of marginalization,” he has said.
He was angered and humiliated in May 2008 when Darfur rebels nearly entered Khartoum, his fortress capital.
Many feared the International Criminal Court’s indictment against Bashir in March 2009 on five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes would have provoked Mr. Bashir into flexing his muscles.
But in February 2010 he signed a ceasefire with the Jem rebels who attacked Omdurman, just across the River Nile from Khartoum.
However, Jem abandoned peace talks soon after, accusing Khartoum’s forces of launching new raids in Darfur.
Mr. Bashir had said Sudan would not stand in the way of South Sudan’s independence, but tension has been rising since the region went its separate way.
Both countries have accused each other of causing violent clashes around the new border.
But while the rest of the region has been experiencing the tumultuous events of the Arab spring, Mr. Bashir has faced little political unrest.
“Those who are waiting for the Arab Spring to come [to Sudan] will be waiting for a while,” local media quoted him as telling a meeting of his National Congress Party last November.