Will Sudan's ousted President Omar Al-Bashir be the first from the Arab world to be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague? If it takes place, his trial will be a lesson to many officials in the Arab region who now fear that the day will come when they are also brought before the same court. Al-Bashir's trial will not only ensure that justice is served to those who were harmed by his rule, but also put an end to the decades during which criminals across the Middle East have been able to act with impunity. Such individuals are in the highest positions in their respective countries.
The Sudanese transitional government announced suddenly its intention to hand over the ousted president and all of his wanted men to the ICC on charges of war crimes. The military officers in the Sovereignty Council, which is leading the transitional phase in Sudan, did not oppose the decision, at least not openly.
This news, in and of itself, is a big step that means a great deal to those who lived through the horrors of the devastating wars that Al-Bashir imposed on the Sudanese people for three decades. Until recently it would have been a fantasy, especially in light of the violent response to the arrest warrant for Al-Bashir issued in 2009, which his government described as a kind of "new colonialism"; Al-Bashir challenged it with sarcastic comments, waving his cane and threatening the ICC judges. Intense official reactions were issued against the warrant on the official Arab level, with regional foreign ministers regarding it as a "political" decision, not a legal one. The Arab League condemned the "double standards" of the ICC, while Arab parliaments said it was a mark of shame in the history of international justice. The Arab capitals also rolled out the red carpet for the then Sudanese President, provoking the ICC and the feelings of his victims.
Such attitudes have disappeared since the revolution that toppled him. The debate within Sudan moved from challenging the legality of the ICC's warrant to the political ramifications of the decision to surrender Al-Bashir given the fragile transitional period in the country, led by a transitional council composed of civilians brought to power by the revolution, and army officers who were until recently members of the same regime that ruled with an iron fist for three decades. This makes it difficult to believe the news about handing Al-Bashir over to the ICC, not least because the court has denied having any contact with the transitional government on the matter.
Will the military wing of the transitional council in Sudan allow Al-Bashir to be handed over when some of the council members were involved in the same crimes for which he is being prosecuted, such as Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemetti), the commander of the Rapid Support Forces? These troops fought in Darfur under the name of "Janjaweed" and are known for committing war crimes. The answer to this question is not easy, especially since more than 50 individuals are wanted by the court. This might increase when Al-Bashir stands in the dock and names the others involved, either in his testimony or to implicate them as revenge for abandoning him.
In the event that Al-Bashir and the others do stand trial, it could restore hope to the victims who have been denied justice in their country throughout his rule. The victims will have access to a judicial system that is not available in Sudan, where Al-Bashir's previous trial made a mockery of justice. Politically, if the trial goes ahead, it will send a strong message to all government officials across the Arab world who are suspected of committing the kind of crimes which fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. This will encourage victims and human rights defenders to submit complaints against them in The Hague.
Bashir's extradition to the ICC will provide the accused with a fair trial in line with international standards, leaving Sudan to focus on its internal problems, pass the democratic transition phase with minimal damage, and restore the confidence of the Sudanese people, particularly those in Darfur, in building a united Sudan based on justice and the rule of law. Meanwhile, on the symbolic level, Bashir's appearance before an international court will be the greatest victory for the Sudanese revolution that toppled him; it will be yet another sign to all democrats in the Arab world that the sacrifices of the Arab Spring, both in its first and second wave, were not and are not in vain.
This article appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 19 February 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.