Trying Sudanese President Poses Unique Challenges

The International Criminal Court has charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur. Stephen Rapp, prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, explains the challenges of trying government leaders for their actions in office.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's our international briefing. In a few minutes, Pakistan, the Bush administration considers the country a key ally in the war on terror, but does the U.S. need a new relationship with that country? The author of a new book about the Pakistan army gives his take. The army is one of the country's most important institutions.

But first, Sudan and the International Criminal Court. Its chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with committing genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Moreno-Ocampo requested a warrant for al-Bashir's arrest. President al-Bashir's government says it will consider any attempt to arrest him an act of war.

Joining us to talk about this is Stephen Rapp. He is prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Prior to that, he served as chief of prosecutions at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. STEPHEN RAPP (Prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone): Very good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: First, can I ask you, what is the logic of issuing this arrest warrant when it is very clear that the country will not comply? It's very clear that surrounding countries are not going to intervene to force him to comply. What would be the logic of proceeding with this?

Mr. RAPP: Well, the logic is that this case was referred to Ocampo by the United Nations, by the Security Council, with a non veto of all the permanent five members in a clear majority. It's the responsibility of the prosecutor to investigate, find the evidence, and to go after, with that evidence, arrest warrants and indictments for those that bear the greatest responsibility. That's the purpose of the court.

Now, the question of will it happen, that's an interesting one, but in the case of our court, the indictment of Charles Taylor was handed down and became public in June of 2003. He was the sitting president of Liberia, and nobody thought he would ever come into custody. In May of 1999, Milosevic was the president of Yugoslavia during the period of the ethnic cleansing there, and no one thought there was any way that Milosevic, sitting in power and with an army around him, would ever come to justice. And within barely two years, he was being helicoptered into the Hague and into the detention center.

MARTIN: Well, I take your point that it establishes, if you want to call it that, sort of the moral orientation of the world community and the intention to seek accountability, but some are concerned that this will complicate, if not destroy, attempts to increase the presence of an international peacekeeping force.

There were rallies in Khartoum earlier in the week. Some people say that these were of ginned by the government, but it doesn't matter people felt that they had to participate. Some people are worried that the safety of peacekeeping forces already there could be jeopardized. What do you say to that?

Mr. RAPP: Well, at the end of the day, you don't have peace without justice. In the Sierra Leone conflict in 1999, just six months after the horrendous invasion of Freetown that saw the murder of thousands, the enslavement of thousands, amputations of hundreds of people, and rape and sexual violence on a broad scale because of the power of the rebels in that case.

And amnesty was given to them, and a peace agreement was signed, and all was allegedly forgiven. But within a few months, the perpetrators were back out committing the crimes. The peacekeepers themselves were being arrested and detained and killed by those that had not faced justice, and eventually, it was necessary to have a court and to go after those with responsibility. Frankly, our experience has been that being tough about justice, tough about atrocities, actually hastens the day when the perpetrators lose power and when the crimes end.

It would be like, if were fighting the mafia or bank robbers or people who were committing horrible crimes, if, you know, we just basically said, oh, we've got to deal with you guys. We've got to give you power. We've got to move you into the city hall. We've got to do a variety of things. And then there would be an end to the rule of law, and there would be no ability to protect our homes, our families, and everything else.

MARTIN: One of the critics is former U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Andrew Natsios. In an article on the website of the Social Science Research Council titled "A Disaster in the Making," he says this indictment may shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement for the country.

The argument here is that, however worthy a decision this is in terms of seeking ultimate justice, the reality for the people on the ground is that their conditions may well be made worse. And if that is the case, how can it hasten a peaceful settlement if the initial consequence may be to make the conditions or the people on whose behalf you are seeking justice, are made worse?

Mr. RAPP: Well, first of all, let's keep in mind, and I want to point out again, this is not my case. It's not my court. Even though we are trying the Taylor case at the venue of the ICC, and I represent the Special Court for Sierra Leone. I'm familiar with the case to some extent.

But there are, in the ICC statutes, certainly a number of safeguards here. The arrest warrant has not been issued yet. It's two or three months away. There's the provision that the Security Council can, under certain circumstances, defer execution of the warrant and progress on the case on an annual basis.

Other things that can be potentially done in this case to try to deal with immediate needs. But, of course, in any kind of difficult situation in the world, I mean, you could imagine making compromises with a Hitler or someone like that, and indeed, it eventually leading to greater suffering.

And sometimes, you have to take action, and particularly where you have a situation like Sudan, where the government's been so uncooperative, where only 40 percent of the U.N. forces have been allowed to get in there, the equipment, the material, other things that's been blocked. The ability to put in the sort of armored personnel carriers and helicopters is not something the government wants to see.

It's sort of, like, you know, no more Mr. Nice Guy if you indict me, and the fact it is, it hasn't been that nice guy. It's been the continuation of the atrocities against these three ethnic groups, according to the evidence cited by Prosecutor Ocampo in his application for an arrest warrant on Monday.

MARTIN: Finally, if we could just take one minute to get an update on the trial that you are heading. The last time we spoke, we spoke to you about the trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia. Could you just tell us how that is going?

Mr. RAPP: Well, it's going very well. We began prosecution evidence in January. We're now in the fifth month of the presentation of evidence, 35th witness is on the stand this week, looking forward to be concluded within the next year by a year from now. It is a complicated case because it involves tying him to crimes that were committed not in Liberia, but in Sierra Leon, but very serious crimes, rape and murder and mutilation and pillage and the use of child soldiers and enslavement to dig diamonds.

We think this case is proceeding in a way that will be a model for other cases before the ICC on how you can go after a person who's a former chief of state and have a trial that's open and fair and expeditious.

MARTIN: Stephen Rapp is the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leon. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RAPP: Very good to be here.

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