The Hague, Netherlands The International Criminal Court issued its first arrest warrants Wednesday in the murderous Darfur conflict, seeking to try a government minister and a janjaweed militia leader on charges of mass slayings, rape and torture. Sudan immediately refused to arrest them.
After studying prosecution evidence for two months, a three-judge panel decided to seek the arrests rather than to summon the suspects to surrender, saying the evidence supported 51 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The warrants against Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister, Ahmed Muhammed Harun, and the janjaweed militia's "colonel of colonels," Ali Kushayb, could be a crucial step toward bringing atrocities in the Sudanese province to international justice.
Richard Dicker of New York-based Human Rights Watch said it signaled that "the days of absolute impunity ... for horrible crimes in Darfur are winding down."
Sudan was defiant.
"Our position is very, very clear - the ICC cannot assume any jurisdiction to judge any Sudanese outside the country," Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi told The Associated Press in the Sudanese capital. "Whatever the ICC does, is totally unrealistic, illegal, and repugnant to any form of international law."
Sudan was not party to the Rome convention that set up the court, he said, implying that it was not obliged to implement its warrants.
Asked whether Sudan would continue its past sporadic cooperation with the court, al-Mardi answered, "What cooperation? It's over."
The court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said Sudan was legally bound to arrest the men.
In February, Moreno-Ocampo named Harun and Kushayb as suspects in the murder, rape, torture and persecution of civilians in Darfur.
Moreno-Ocampo said the arrest warrants underscored the strength of his case, built during a 20-month investigation, even though the treacherous security situation prevented him from sending investigators into Darfur. "We transformed (witness) stories into evidence, and now the judges have confirmed the strength of that evidence," he said.
Harun is currently in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Al-Mardi has said a Sudanese investigation into Harun's activities found "not a speck of evidence" against him. The Sudanese government says it has arrested Kushayb pending an internal investigation, but several witnesses told the AP that he was moving freely in Darfur under police protection.
Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, said the international community must press Sudan to arrest the men and send them to The Hague.
Failure to do so, "risks furthering Sudan's isolation on the international stage," he said, noting the 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the Darfur investigation calls on Khartoum to cooperate fully with the court and the prosecutor.