Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir flew out of South Africa on Monday in defiance of a Pretoria court that later said he should have been arrested to face genocide charges at the International Criminal Court.
Despite a legal order for him to stay in the country ahead of the ruling on his detention, the government let Bashir leave unhindered, with South Africa’s ruling party accusing the ICC of being biased against Africans and “no longer useful”.
Bashir has been indicted by the ICC over war crimes and crimes against humanity but South Africa gave him immunity along with all delegates attending an African Union summit in Johannesburg this week.
As an ICC signatory, South Africa was obliged to implement arrest warrants. The decision to let Bashir leave represented an affirmation of shifting diplomatic priorities for the government, with African interests trumping those of the West.
It also represented a blow for the Hague-based ICC, which has convicted just two minor African warlords since it started work in 2002 and has struggled to create accountability for those who are too powerful to be tried at home.
The veteran Sudanese leader flew out of the Waterkloof Air Base at around 1000 GMT, headed for Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
Hours later, judge Dunstan Mlambo found in favour of an application by a rights group calling for him to be detained, saying the failure to arrest him contravened the constitution.
“The respondents are forthwith compelled to take all reasonable steps to arrest President Bashir,” Mlambo said.
Government lawyer William Mokhari said the home affairs department would be investigating Bashir’s departure.
Bashir arrived in Khartoum to throngs of well-wishers and government officials inside the airport.
Wearing traditional white robes, Bashir waved his trademark cane greeting the cheering crowd in an open-topped vehicle. Waving the Sudanese flag, the crowd chanted God is Great and some carried pictures of Bashir with the banner ‘Lion of Africa’.
Sudan’s foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour said Africa’s enemies were behind the failed bid.
“The participation could have been normal and without a fuss, but Africa’s enemies, Sudan’s enemies and the enemies of peace-loving countries wanted to try and turn it into a drama, to prevent the president from important participations,” Ghandour said.
Ghandour said the South African government had assured Sudan that Bashir’s participation at the summit was a source of pride and that President Jacob Zuma had blamed opposition parties trying to embarrass Pretoria.
“This is a case of state sovereignty. Here we have a president elected and supported by his people. I don’t have to point to the elections as I can simply point to this scene right here,” he said referring to the boisterous crowd.
Bashir was re-elected in April in a vote boycotted by most of the opposition, thereby extending his quarter-century rule.
The ruling provided fresh ammunition for Zuma’s critics, who accused him of ignoring his own judiciary. The presidency and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
“It is completely unacceptable. The South African government has been complicit in assuring Mr Bashir is able to flee the country,” Democratic Alliance Chief Whip John Steenhuisen told Reuters, calling for “heads to roll”.
“Our international reputation lies in tatters,” he added.
The ICC issued arrest warrants for Bashir in 2009 and 2010, accusing him of masterminding genocide and other atrocities in his campaign to crush a revolt in the Darfur region – a conflict that killed as many as 300,000 people, the United Nations says.
He has long rejected the court’s authority, but the warrants have curtailed his ability to travel freely. Monday’s ruling means that he will not be able to come back to South Africa.
ICC deputy prosecutor James Stewart said he was disappointed Bashir had managed to escape, but told Reuters he did not see it as a setback for the court, which was playing “a long game”.
“I think that what happened over the past couple of days and in particular today, demonstrates that an ICC warrant of arrest actually means something and clearly the court in South Africa took that view,” he said.
The U.S. State Department said it was disappointed South Africa did not prevent Bashir from leaving Johannesburg.
Spokesman Jeff Rathke declined to say South Africa should have arrested Bashir but said “clearly, some action should have been taken”.
The ICC and the U.N. criticised Pretoria for rolling out the red carpet for Bashir.
“The International Criminal Court’s warrant for the arrest of President al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes is a matter I take extremely seriously,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva.
“The authority of the ICC must be respected and its decision implemented,” Ban said.