The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court cautioned the U.N. on Wednesday "it is time to be prepared" for reprisals in Darfur if he obtains a warrant to arrest the Sudanese president on genocide charges.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo's warning further underscored the ramifications if the independent Dutch-based court agrees with the evidence he presented in July alleging President Omar al-Bashir has been orchestrating atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region including the widespread rape and murder of civilians in refugee camps.
On Wednesday, in a briefing to the Security Council that authorized his investigation, Moreno-Ocampo charged al-Bashir has been "inciting violence" over the genocide charges by making direct threats against civilians and African Union-U.N. peacekeepers operating under the council's authority.
"Such threats should be seen for what they are — a confirmation of criminal intentions," the prosecutor said. "The judges will rule shortly on this application (for an arrest warrant). It is time to be prepared for their ruling."
It was the prosecutor's last council briefing before the court decides whether to issue a warrant for al-Bashir. A court decision is expected by early next year.
The court last year issued arrest warrants for a Sudanese government minister and for a commander in the government-backed janjaweed militia, which has been blamed for most of the atrocities in Darfur.
Khartoum does not recognize the court, and has refused to turn over any suspects to face international justice.
Calls for deferment
Last month, Moreno-Ocampo opened a third major leg in his investigation by seeking arrest warrants for three anti-government rebel leaders accused of a deadly attack in September 2007 that left 12 African Union peacekeepers dead and eight wounded in northern Darfur.
He accused the rebels of committing war crimes, including murder, pillaging and deliberately attacking peacekeepers.
There has been some support, notably among China, Russia and African and Arab nations, for invoking the council's power to defer Moreno-Ocampo's prosecution for at least a year, out of fear that an attempt to arrest a sitting president could wreak further havoc in an already devastated and warring region.
About 300,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been forced from their homes in five years of fighting in Darfur.
"We continue to hope that this council will take time, the necessary time, to have a discussion" on deferring the prosecution, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told the council Wednesday.
"We are not lawyers, we are not prosecutors," Kumalo added. "We sit here having to make decisions ... to balance the two things between the maintenance of international security and for fighting impunity."
'Manipulated by blackmail'
Such council voices, however, have so far been held to a minority.
"We know there could be reprisals, the situation could get even worse," countered Costa Rica's Ambassador Jorge Urbina. "Night is never so dark as before the dawn. We can't have this arm wrestle between the council and the court and not allow responsibility to be taken for one's acts."
Belgian Ambassador Jan Grauls said the council cannot allow itself to be "manipulated by blackmail" by caving to al-Bashir's threats of more violence.
Rights groups welcomed the prosecutor's tough talk as a stern reminder to the international community it must not tolerate attacks or threats on the beleaguered AU-U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, or on humanitarian aid workers or civilians in foreign embassies in Khartoum.
"It's especially imperative that those states that are supportive of Khartoum — and I mean the People's Republic of China, Libya, the Russian Federation — take the opportunity to send that message very clearly today," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at New York-based Human Rights Watch.