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Not since January 1885, when the forces of Muhammed Ahmad captured Khartoum, has the news from the Sudanese capital sent a shiver of fear through the palaces of Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. Then, it was the prospect, albeit slim, of being held to account by a self-proclaimed “Mahdi,” or Redeemer of Islam. Now, it is the more tangible possibility of facing justice before the International Criminal Court.

The Sudanese government has announced that it will hand over the former dictator, Omar Al Bashir, to the ICC, to be tried for genocide and war crimes. The charges — three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes — relate to his leadership of the brutal suppression of the Darfur region after a 2003 insurgency.

When the ICC issued the indictments a decade ago, the first time the court had charged a suspect with genocide, Al Bashir’s appearance before it seemed unlikely.

The military cabal that initially took over rejected early calls to send Bashir to The Hague; instead, he was pronounced guilty of corruption by a Sudanese court, and sentenced to two years in a rehabilitation facility.

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Even a year ago, Al Bashir’s position as leader of Sudan was unassailable, and he enjoyed the support, overt and tacit, of other heads of state. Although he stayed away from Western capitals, Al Bashir was able to visit other countries without fear of arrest. Two years ago, he was welcomed by Russia to attend the soccer World Cup.

The impunity ended when Al Bashir was dethroned last year after sustained protests by Sudanese. The military cabal that initially took over rejected early calls to send Bashir to The Hague; instead, he was pronounced guilty of corruption by a Sudanese court, and sentenced to two years in a rehabilitation facility. This outcome was never going to satisfy the protesters, much less the people of Darfur. Fears remained that he would get off lightly, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, rather than receive the ultimate punishment, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussain.

The transitional ruling council — made up of military commanders and an opposition alliance — now at the helm in Khartoum has faced pressure from the protesters to bring more serious charges against Al Bashir. But many in the military and judiciary are his appointees, and their loyalties remain suspect. Handing the former tyrant over to the ICC could be a convenient punt.

Special Sudanese court for Darfur crimes

The political arm of the protest movement that brought him down has said it is not opposed to having him tried in The Hague. There has also been speculation that the ICC could be persuaded to conduct the trial in Sudan.

But nothing is certain at the moment. The ICC says it has not yet received confirmation from Khartoum that Bashir will be handed over. His lawyer says the former dictator will not cooperate. The transitional authorities and the rebels have agreed to set up a special Sudanese court for Darfur crimes; whether it would get first right of refusal to try Bashir is unclear.

The council could yet decide to pursue him for numerous other crimes committed during his 30-year reign, keeping him in Sudan for months, even years. And then, there’s the possibility of a rearguard action by Bashir loyalists in the military and among the Islamist groups he supported while in power. The prevailing political balance in Khartoum between the brass and civilian politicians is delicate; the latter could agree to a compromise that keeps Bashir away from the ICC in exchange for speedier political reforms.

Iraqis watch and wonder

How it all plays out will be watched closely by the Sudanese, and followed from a distance by other tyrants and the people they currently tyrannise. Six months after the “Mahdi” claimed Khartoum in 1885, his sudden death from typhus removed any threat to the rulers in the Arab world.

That kind of relief isn’t on the cards now. If Bashir does face the ICC, Iraqi Sunnis might wonder if former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki might one day share his fate.

— Bloomberg

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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