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Sudan's dictator Omar al-Bashir may finally face justice for his war crimes in Darfur

Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, center, at the African Union summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, center, at the African Union summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir is in South Africa. A court there has ordered he be barred from leaving the country while it considers whether to honor a 2009 International Criminal Court indictment.
  • Bashir is wanted for war crimes committed by his government in Darfur, a region of Sudan.
  • It's not clear whether South Africa will fulfill its requirement to hand Bashir over to the ICC, which would end his 24-year dictatorship.

How it began

It was early 2003, and Sudan's military was losing ground to rebels in the western region of Darfur. Sudan had been at civil war since the early 1980s, and had begun moving toward a peace deal with its main adversaries when a separate rebellion rose up in Darfur in 2002. Sudan's exhausted military lost ground in a series of humiliating defeats.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's dictator since seizing power in a military coup years earlier, responded with a reign of terror in Darfur that was quickly described by the United Nations, United States, and others as a genocide. He enlisted an army of informal militias, which he armed and encouraged into battle with promises of land and incitements to ethnically motivated violence.

The militias fanned out across the poor and largely rural Darfur, systematically destroying villages and raping, murdering, or expelling its inhabitants. They destroyed or stole crops and tainted water supplies with dead bodies, depriving many people of water or food.

Military aircraft supported the campaign, with helicopter gunships strafing families in their homes or columns of fleeing refugees. Within a few years, although Darfur has a population of only a few million, the campaign had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced 2.5 million.

In 2008, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court accused Bashir of war crimes, and in 2009, the ICC issued its first-ever arrest warrant for a sitting head of state. The ICC's authority is recognized in 123 countries, which are legally obliged to arrest anyone indicted by the court if he or she enters their country.

How it ends?

On Sunday, Bashir arrived in South Africa, which is one of those 123 countries, for an African Union summit. The ICC called on the country to arrest Bashir, but few expected that to happen; a carefree Bashir gave reporters a thumbs-up when they flashed photos of him at the summit. But that afternoon, a South African court intervened, ordering the government to prevent Bashir from leaving the country while it formally considered the ICC's request.

Even if the court decides to order the government to arrest Bashir, and even if that ruling is sustained in any appeal, it's not at all clear that South African leaders would comply. Government officials told the Wall Street Journal, implausibly, that they did not consider their commitments to the ICC as applying to the African Union summit. The country's ruling party, the African National Congress, has close ties to Bashir. Under Jacob Zuma, president since 2009, South Africa has grown a little bit closer to despots in the region and a little bit less concerned with the opinions of Western governments, which would likely lead any international pressure campaign to arrest Bashir.

The past few years have been bad ones for Bashir. He has had terrible relations with South Sudan, which broke away from the rest of Sudan in 2011 as part of a peace deal and is rich in oil. Rising food and fuel prices sparked mass protests from 2011 to 2013, which sometimes became violent. Rebellion has persisted in Darfur and elsewhere. His ICC indictments mean that he is unable to travel to much of the world — an important duty for a head of state — with even countries that are not party to the ICC barring or discouraging him from visiting.

Speculation that Bashir could be pushed out of power by his own government has grown in the last couple of years. It's just speculation, but with things going so badly in Sudan, it is something of a surprise every time he travels abroad and then is welcomed home. At the same time, he is increasingly isolated abroad. The number of people in the world who want him to remain in power seems constantly dwindling.

This weekend's judicial episode in South Africa may end up being just another bump in the road for Bashir, something he quickly overcomes before flying safely back to Sudan. Or it may be the trigger, or the excuse, to finally removing him from power. Dictatorships like his, brittle and besieged, always seem invulnerable until the day they suddenly don't.

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