South Africa’s high court has barred Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, from leaving the country in a dispute over alleged war crimes that could undermine the authority of the international criminal court (ICC).
Bashir, who travelled to Johannesburg for a summit of African leaders, is wanted by the UN-backed court for alleged atrocities, including genocide, committed during the Darfur conflict.
The high court in Pretoria issued an interim order preventing Bashir from leaving South Africa until an urgent application to force authorities to arrest him is heard.
A further hearing was scheduled for Monday at 11.30am (9.30am BST) after the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which promotes human rights, filed an urgent application to overturn a government decision to grant immunity to all delegates attending the African Union (AU) summit.
The prospect of the Sudanese president being formally arrested appeared to recede on Sunday evening, however, when South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) said the ICC was “no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended”.
The ANC also called for a review of ICC statutes to make them applicable to all UN members and ensure a “fair and independent court for universal and equitable justice”.
Bashir was seen at the conference venue on Sunday evening, but his whereabouts on Monday was not confirmed.
African states accuse the court, which is based in The Hague, of only targeting political leaders on their continent and failing to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The initial order preventing Bashir’s departure was extended on Sunday so that the court could reconvene on Monday to examine the SALC application.
Judge Hans Fabricuis urged the government to take “all necessary steps” to prevent Bashir, 71, from leaving the country. If he left, the judge said, it would damage South Africa’s international reputation.
In a statement issued at the weekend, the ICC called on South Africa, which has signed up to the court, to detain Bashir and “spare no effort in ensuring the execution of the [two] arrest warrants”.
It also expressed “deep concern about the negative consequences for the court in case of non-execution of the warrants by states parties and, in this regard, urges them to respect their obligations to cooperate with the court”.
South Africa’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment. As an ICC signatory, the government is obliged to exercise its arrest warrants.
Bashir was originally indicted more than a decade ago. “He would be a fool if he had not sought guarantees he would not be transferred before leaving for South Africa,” one ICC official was reported as saying.
Since his indictment in 2009, he has mostly travelled to countries that have not joined the ICC. “We are all happy to be here. There’s no problem,” a Sudanese official said at the summit.
The AU summit is chaired by Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, who has urged African leaders to pull out of the ICC.
Human rights groups, however, expressed outrage that Bashir could openly defy arrest. “Allowing president Bashir into South Africa without arresting him would be a major stain on South Africa’s reputation for promoting justice for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. “South Africa’s legal obligations as an ICC member mean cooperating in Bashir’s arrest, not in his travel plans.”
Darfur erupted into conflict in 2003 when insurgents mounted a campaign against Bashir’s government, complaining their region was politically and economically marginalised. More than 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict and about 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN.