(photo credit: AP)
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court filed genocide charges Monday against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accusing him of masterminding attempts to wipe out African tribes in Darfur with a campaign of murder, rape and deportation.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked a three-judge panel at the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir to prevent the slow deaths of some 2.5 million people forced from their homes in Darfur and still under attack from government-backed janjaweed militia.
"Genocide is a crime of intention - we don't need to wait until these 2.5 million die," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The genocide is ongoing," he added, saying systematic rape was a key element of the campaign. "Seventy-year-old women, 6-year-old girls are raped," he said. "Massive rapes, gang rapes, rapes in front of the parents."
Moreno-Ocampo was undeterred by concern that his indictment against Al-Bashir might ignite a storm of vengeance against Darfur refugees and lead to the closing of Sudan's doors to relief agencies and possibly peacekeeping troops.
Al-Bashir "wants to end the history of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa people. I don't have the luxury to look away. I have evidence," the prosecutor said in a statement after submitting his case to the judges.
"His motives were largely political. His alibi was a 'counterinsurgency.' His intent was genocide," the statement said.
Moreno-Ocampo filed 10 charges: three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and two of murder. Judges are expected to take months to study the evidence before deciding whether to order Al-Bashir's arrest.
Despite Moreno-Ocampo's bold move, Al-Bashir is unlikely to be sent to The Hague any time soon. Sudan rejects the court's jurisdiction and refuses to arrest suspects.
The filing marked the first time prosecutors at the world's first permanent, global war crimes court have issued charges against a sitting head of state.
Moreno-Ocampo's decision to go after Al-Bashir is expected to cause further turmoil in Sudan and some analysts fear it could make life even worse for refugees living in Darfur's sprawling camps and reliant on humanitarian aid for food and water.
Moreno-Ocampo said most members of the three targeted ethnic African groups were driven from their homes by Sudanese forces and the janjaweed in 2004. Since then, the janjaweed have been targeting the camps aiming to starve the refugees.
"These 2.5 million people are in camps. They (Al-Bashir's forces) don't need gas chambers because the desert will kill them," Moreno-Ocampo said, drawing comparison's with Nazi Germany's most notorious method of mass murder during the Holocaust.
The refugees "have no more water, no more food, no more cattle. They have lost everything. They live because international humanitarian organizations are providing food for them," he added.
An estimated 300,000 people have died in Darfur since conflict erupted there in 2003 when local tribes took up arms against Al-Bashir's Arab-dominated government in the capital, Khartoum, accusing authorities of years of neglect.
Moreno-Ocampo said the international community needs to act to prevent more deaths.
"We are dealing with a genocide. Is it easy to stop? No. Do we need to stop? Yes. Do we have to stop? Yes," he told AP.
"The international community failed in the past, failed to stop Rwanda genocide, failed to stop Balkans crimes," he added. "So this time the new thing is there is a court, an independent court ... who is saying 'this is a genocide."'
In an indication of the fury that could be unleashed if Omar al-Bashir is charged with orchestrating a five-year reign of terror in Darfur, his ruling National Congress Party on Sunday warned of "more violence and blood" in the vast western region if an arrest warrant is issued against the president, state TV reported.
There are also fears that the fresh Darfur case could spark a backlash against the 9,000-strong UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It was the UN Security Council that in March 2005 asked Moreno-Ocampo to investigate crimes in Darfur.
Moreno-Ocampo said any attacks on peacekeepers would be "further evidence that he's committing genocide - attacking those that like to protect these people. It's confirming he is committing genocide."
A spokeswoman for the force said it had not suspended any military operations.
"All essential peacekeeping operations are being carried-out by troops," Shereen Zorba told The Associated Press in an e-mail from Khartoum.
However, she said: "a limited number of operations that carry security risk to civilian staff are temporarily restricted."
Indicting a sitting president is not unprecedented.
Other international courts previously have indicted Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor of Liberia while they were in office. Milosevic died in custody in The Hague in 2006 shortly before the end of his trial, while Taylor is on trial in a courtroom just four stories above the room where Moreno-Ocampo made his announcement Monday for orchestrating atrocities in Sierra Leone.