Brandishing a tribal sword and a broad smile, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir scorned his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and threatened to cut off foreign aid to scores of citizens languishing in the country's western region of Darfur.
Bashir's threat before a cheering crowd of supporters wasn't empty: The president expelled 13 of the largest aid groups in Darfur after judges at The Hague-based international court issued a warrant March 4 for the leader's arrest for war crimes. Bashir says the foreign humanitarian groups collaborated with the court, a charge aid organizations deny.
Bashir's indictment includes charges of orchestrating mass murder, rape, and torture in campaigns against civilians in Darfur. More than 300,000 people have died and as many as 3 million have fled their homes in the region since militia-led attacks began in 2003.
For those remaining in Darfur, conditions are grim: Some 4.7 million people rely on aid for survival, often packing into overflowing displacement camps with limited supplies of food and water. UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said the expelled groups provided at least half of the aid in Darfur. The groups include Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee.
Holmes said Sudanese security forces had already confiscated some items from aid organizations, including vehicles, computers, and food. He said local authorities had also seized one or two World Food Program warehouses containing food.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice warned: "If this decision stands, we can expect over a million people to be in immediate risk of losing their lives, and the responsibility for that decision lies squarely with the government of Sudan."
Bashir and government officials remained defiant, refusing to recognize the UN-backed court's jurisdiction in Sudan. The president told supporters: "The Inter-national Criminal Court and everyone who works for it are under my feet," an extreme insult in the Arab world.
Bashir and his cronies weren't the only ones opposed to his indictment: South Sudanese President Salva Kiir-once an enemy of Bashir-also opposed the warrant, saying it could compromise a tenuous North-South peace agreement. Christian relief leader Franklin Graham agreed. The president of Samaritan's Purse acknowledged that Bashir's forces had bombed one of the group's hospitals in South Sudan nine times, but said in January: "The Islamic fundamentalists coming behind him [Bashir] could be worse."
The indictment drew split reaction from other groups that have long opposed Bashir and his Khartoum government. African expert Alex de Waal said the indictment would entrench Bashir and jeopardize lives in Darfur. He said destabilizing the country could also endanger thousands peacefully returning to South Sudan after a 20-year civil war with Bashir's forces in the North: "We are putting all that on the line just for the symbolism of saying we want one man in the dock."
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's chief prosecutor, defended the indictment, saying Bashir's severe crimes demand justice. But that justice may have to wait: Arresting Bashir could prove difficult if his own government protects him. If the president travels to another African nation, those leaders could hand him to the court, though that seems unlikely. In the meantime, officials from expelled aid groups are appealing their expulsion from Darfur, and officials in South Sudan are offering a temporary base for the groups: Kiir said the organizations could relocate to the southern capital of Juba.
De Waal said the uncertainty makes finding a way forward difficult: "Everything that any commentator or expert thinks he or she knew with confidence about Sudan becomes moot."