June 15, 2015 / 7:17 AM / 2 years ago

South Africa court bars indicted Sudan leader from leaving

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir looks on ahead of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg June 14, 2015.Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African judge barred Sudan's indicted president from leaving the country on Sunday, in a deepening rift between Africa and the West over what Pretoria called anti-poor country bias in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

President Omar al-Bashir, visiting South Africa for an African Union summit, stands accused in an ICC arrest warrant of war crimes and crimes against humanity over atrocities committed in the Darfur conflict. He was first indicted in 2009.

A judge is expected to hear an application on Monday calling for Bashir's arrest, although this appears unlikely because South Africa's government has granted legal immunity to all African Union delegates.

South African President Jacob Zuma's ruling African National Congress (ANC) responded furiously to Sunday's court order, accusing the Hague-based ICC of seeking to impose selective Western justice by singling out Africans.

"The ANC holds the view that the International Criminal Court is no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended," the ANC said in a statement.

"Countries, mainly in Africa and Eastern Europe ... continue to unjustifiably bear the brunt of the decisions of the ICC, with Sudan being the latest example."

The U.S. State Department said on Sunday it was "deeply concerned" by Bashir's visit to South Africa for the summit.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that, while the United States was not a party to the Rome Statute that sets out crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the ICC, "we strongly support international efforts to hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes".

"In light of the atrocities in Darfur, we call on the Government of South Africa to support the international community's efforts to provide justice for the victims of these heinous crimes," the statement said.

A human rights group, the Southern African Litigation Center, earlier petitioned the Pretoria High Court to force the government to issue an arrest warrant for Bashir.

Judge Hans Fabricius postponed the hearing until 0930 GMT on Monday to allow the government time to prepare its case, urging South African authorities to "take all necessary steps" to prevent Bashir leaving the country.

Sudan's government said Bashir had not slipped out of the country, despite some media reports to the contrary. "President Bashir is here in Johannesburg," presidency spokesman Mohammed Hatem told Reuters from the South African commercial capital.

"PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGN"

Earlier, Khartoum defended the South African visit by Bashir, who was sworn in this month for another five-year term, and said the court order had "no value".

"We contacted South Africa in advance and informed them that the president would participate and they highly welcomed his participation," Sudan's State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Ismail, told reporters in Khartoum.

"What is being mentioned in the media is a propaganda campaign against Sudan," Ismail added.

The conflict in Darfur has killed as many as 300,000 people and displaced 2 million, the United Nations says.

"He (Bashir) would be a fool if he had not sought guarantees that he would not be transferred before leaving for South Africa," one ICC official told Reuters, asking not to be named.

The ICC issued a statement asking Pretoria "to spare no effort in ensuring the execution of the arrest warrants".

It said the court's members had "deep concern" about the negative consequences if any signatory state failed to assist in detaining Bashir.

A foreign ministry spokesman in South Africa, which is an ICC signatory and therefore obliged to implement arrest warrants, did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The ANC called for a review of ICC statutes to make them apply to all United Nations members to ensure a "fair and independent court for universal and equitable justice".

Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Gareth Jones and Susan Thomas

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