Sudanese official evades prosecution

August 11, 2007|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,Los Angeles Times

EL FASHER, Sudan -- For a man accused of masterminding massacres, Ahmad Harun seems quite comfortable in the place he is suspected of helping to destroy.

He strolls around the grassy compound belonging to the local governor in Sudan's deeply troubled Darfur region, embracing Arab tribal leaders, soldiers and officials who have come to hear the president.

Harun, 42, was in charge of the region's security during the height of the attacks on farm villages that sent millions fleeing their homes in 2003 and 2004. He is suspected of recruiting, funding and arming local militias to root out rebels who had attacked the Sudanese army, sweeping away their home villages, families and the intricate fabric of Darfur's identity along the way.

He publicly relished his command, telling an open meeting of hundreds of officials, tribesmen and soldiers in West Darfur in July 2003, "I have the power and the authority to kill or forgive whoever in Darfur."

The rebels are like fish, Harun told a Sudanese committee that was investigating suspected war crimes in 2004, and "the villages are like water to fish." The objective, he suggested, was to eliminate the water that harbored the fish.

Three years later, Harun glides unhindered and unapologetic through the parched ruins of Darfur. He is state minister for humanitarian affairs and is in charge of caring for the people he is accused of displacing. That he holds such a post says much about the limits of international power to cope with a crisis of the kind that besets Darfur.

In May, the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, Netherlands, charged Harun and an Arab militia leader, Ali Mohammad Ali Abdalrahman, better known as Ali Kushayb, with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sudan has rejected the arrest warrants, saying that the country is not a signatory to the court and that the charges against Harun are false.

Instead of being behind bars, as the court asked, Harun has the power to decide who lives and dies in Darfur. And without Sudan's cooperation, there is almost nothing the court can do to bring him to justice.

"It is absolutely unacceptable," said chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. "Harun has to be removed from office, arrested and sent to the court. Allowing him to be the humanitarian minister is like putting the fox in front of the chickens."

The problem, experts say, is that asking the government to hand Harun over is asking it to indict itself. And holding anyone responsible for Darfur means targeting the only ones able to guarantee peace, the president and vice president.

"Harun has been interrogated about the allegations, and there is no case," said Interior Minister Zubeir Bashir Taha, a senior Cabinet minister who also oversees Darfur. "The evidence does not stand scrutiny, and whether it does or not, it is a matter for Sudan to decide and act upon."

The International Criminal Court must rely on the government of Sudan to surrender Harun unless the United Nations Security Council orders U.N. officials to arrest him, which would probably get U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers tossed out of the country.

Furthermore, Moreno-Ocampo's desire for swift justice competes with the aims of other U.N. agencies trying to bring peace to Darfur. The Security Council can demand that the government in Khartoum, the capital, make the arrests or face sanctions, but it is also trying to maintain the government's acceptance of a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force for Darfur and its cooperation in peace talks.

"This is normal. This is the process. It will take time," Moreno-Ocampo said. "I don't know if will take months or years, but Harun's destiny is the court."

Harun, however, wears his knowledge of the court's impotence like armor.

"Who gave the ICC this right?" he said. "It is a matter of politics. It is not an issue of justice."

He denies allegations that he worked with the militias known as janjaweed to attack civilian villages and says that he would never go to The Hague to answer the charges.

"We are not signatories [to the court]," and neither is the United States, he said.

"When you sign, we are going to follow. You go first."

Harun faces 42 counts of individual criminal responsibility including murder, rape, persecution and forcible transfer of population. The militia leader, Ali Kushayb, is charged with 50 counts.

For Harun, the time for talking about the international court has passed. Instead, he said, he wants to talk about the government's humanitarian work in Darfur.

"The situation in general, based on humanitarian indicators, is good," he said. "There is full humanitarian access; the fast-track systems are functioning."

Asked whether he feels a special responsibility for the people in the camps, he smiled and said, "They are our people, and we are taking care of them."

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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