Arab dictators take note

Political scientist Ali Anouzla interprets the potentially imminent trial of Sudan's ex-dictator Omar al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court as a warning sign for numerous despots across the Arab world who must themselves answer for serious human rights violations

By Ali Anouzla

Will ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir be the first Arab leader to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC)? Should the trial take place, it will be a lesson to many senior figures in Arab countries who are now worried about their own heads, fearing that the day will come when they too will be brought before this very court. This trial will not only bring justice for the victims of al-Bashir’s rule; it will end the years of immunity from prosecution. Immunity, from which many criminals in the region have benefitted in the past, and from which others in power today still benefit.

In a surprising decision, the Sudanese transitional government announced its intention to hand over the deposed president and all those wanted men around him to the ICC on charges of war crimes. This decision was not opposed, publicly at least, by the military leaders in the sovereign council that is overseeing the transition in Sudan.

The news that a trial against al-Bashir is on the horizon is in itself a step of great significance for the Sudanese people and for all those who lived through the horrors of the devastating wars to which al-Bashir subjected the Sudanese people over three decades.

Reactions from the Arab world

This news would simply not have been believable until very recently, not least when seen against the background of the exaggerated reactions which followed the original issue of the arrest warrant for al-Bashir back in 2009. The Sudanese government of the day described the decision as a kind of "neo-colonialism", and al-Bashir himself attacked it with mocking statements and theatrical gestures, waving his stick about and threatening the judges of the ICC.

Women celebrate the power-sharing deal between military leaders and representatives of the transitional council (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
عهد جديد في السودان وآمال بمستقبل أفضل بعد اتفاق تقاسم السلطة: اتفقت القيادة العسكرية والمعارضة على التوزيع المستقبلي للسلطة في السودان. وينص الحل الوسط، الذي تفاوض عليه الاتحاد الأفريقي، على إنشاء مجلس سيادي مكون من خمسة مدنيين وخمسة عسكريين، على أن ينتخب هؤلاء العضو الحادي عشر. ومن المفترض أن تستغرق الفترة الانتقالية مدة تزيد قليلاً عن ثلاث سنوات.

Indeed, even at an official level across the Arab world, fierce responses were issued against the decision, which Arab foreign ministers considered political rather than legal. The Council of the Arab League criticised the ICC for its "double standards", whilst the Union of Arab Parliaments went so far as to say that the decision "dishonoured" the history of international justice.

As a result, al-Bashir remained a welcome guest in many Arab countries. On arriving in capitals across the region, al-Bashir would be given the red carpet treatment, in a provocative display towards the ICC and those suffering under his rule.

Under the iron fist of the military

Attitudes changed in the wake of the popular revolution which overthrew al-Bashir. After that, the debate inside Sudan moved from challenging the legality of the ICC’s decision to the political implications of the decision to accept the new situation amid a fragile transitional period.

The leadership of the country is now in the hands of a sovereign council. It is made up of representatives of the civilian population who came to power in the course of the revolution and of military personnel, who until recently were an integral part of the country's former leadership, which ruled Sudan with an iron fist for three decades.

This is what makes the news of al-Bashir's extradition to the ICC all the more difficult to believe, especially since the ICC denies there has been any contact with the transitional government relating to this matter.

The pressing question is whether the military wing of the sovereign council will actually allow the extradition of al-Bashir to face an international tribunal. After all, some of them were involved in the very same crimes for which the ICC is pursuing him. A case in point is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, which were involved in the fighting in Darfur. Also known as the "Janjaweed", the RSF is well known for its war crimes.

Will the council allow al-Bashir to be extradited?

The answer is not straightforward, since the number of individuals being sought by the ICC is more than fifty. This number could also rise once al-Bashir appears in court; he could well mention the names of others who were involved, either in his own testimony or in order to implicate them, in retaliation for them having abandoned him.

If the transitional government does surrender al-Bashir and the rest of those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, the trial will restore hope to the victims at the lack of justice in their own country and will alleviate the sense of grievance they felt throughout the thirty years of al-Bashir’s tyrannical rule.

From a legal perspective, this court would allow the victims to use a judicial system which guarantees them justice; this much is unobtainable in Sudan, as was apparent in the farcical trial of al-Bashir recently in Khartoum.

Justice for the dictatorship's victims

On a political level, the trial would send a strong message to many political, military and security officials across the Arab region alleged to have committed acts amounting to crimes within the purview of the ICC. It would also encourage victims and human rights defenders to turn directly to the International Criminal Court or to re-open existing complaints and disputes.

Al-Bashir’s extradition to the ICC would ensure justice for those involved; it would also provide the accused with the conditions for a fair trial in line with international standards. This, in turn, would allow Sudan to focus on its own problems and to make the transition to democracy with the minimum damage. In sum, it would serve to restore confidence to the Sudanese people, especially those in Darfur, in building a united Sudan based on justice and the rule of law.

The appearance of the ex-dictator before an international court would be the greatest victory of the Sudanese revolution that overthrew him. Similarly, it would be another sign to every democrat in the Arab world that the sacrifices of the Arab Spring, whether in its first wave or its second, were not – and will not be – in vain.

Ali Anouzla

© 2020

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

Ali Anouzla is a Moroccan journalist and writer, director and editor-in-chief of the "" website. He founded and was senior editor of a number of Moroccan news outlets. He won the “Leaders for Democracy” award in 2014, which is awarded by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).