The International Criminal Court has done an about-face on its March 2009 decision not to charge Sudanese President Oman al-Bashir with genocide for alleged actions relating to Darfur.
The five-judge appeals chamber ruling in The Hague on Wednesday also put other leaders around the world on notice that the court will not balk at charging them with genocide if they persecute their own people, said an activist.
"This gives new wind to the sails of international justice," said Kenyan human rights activist Njonjo Mue.
The 2009 original decision to issue a warrant of arrest against Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity was made by the pre-trial chamber. The appeals chamber said Wednesday that the decision to reject the prosecutor's application for punishment of the crime of genocide on the grounds of insufficient proof was wrong.
The standard of proof the court used in 2009 to dismiss three counts of genocide against Bashir "was higher and more demanding than what is required" in its statutes, appellate judge Erkki Kourula of Finland said Wednesday.
A document released by the international court stated that it would issue an arrest warrant for genocide only if the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the prosecutor's evidence were reasonable grounds to believe in the existence of genocidal intent.
"The decision by the pre-trial chamber not to issue a warrant of arrest in respect to the crime of genocide is materially affected by an error of law. And, it is for this reason, that the appeals chamber has decided to reverse the impugned decision," said Kourula.
Other world leaders on notice
The court charged on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture, rape and forced expulsions in Darfur.
Bashir, the first sitting head of state indicted by the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, refuses to recognize the court's jurisdiction and has vowed never to surrender.
His indictment in March further isolated his hardline regime.
Since the charges were issued, the Sudanese leader has travelled to friendly countries but called off trips to nations where he fears he could be arrested and sent to The Hague.
International aid agencies expelled
His government expelled 13 international aid agencies working in Darfur in response to the charges, further compounding the humanitarian crisis in a region where 300,000 people have died since fighting broke out in 2003 between the government and rebels. The United Nations says 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo accuses Bashir of mobilizing the entire Sudanese state apparatus with the aim of destroying a substantial part of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups in Darfur over more than six years.
Prosecutors accuse Sudanese troops and the Janjaweed Arab militia they support of murdering civilians and preying on them in refugee camps. Moreno-Ocampo said part of the alleged genocide was a campaign of rape to drive women into the desert, where they die of starvation.
"For me, the facet that President Bashir expelled the humanitarian organizations is confirming that his intention is the physical destruction of these people," Moreno-Ocampo told The Associated Press in his office at the court.
The appeals decision has fuelled hopes among human rights activists that prosecutors will indict other leaders around the world for atrocities.
Bashir has the backing of many African and Arab leaders.
"We are not for double standard justice. One for poor. One for rich. One for big nations. And one for small nations," said Jean Ping, chair of the African Union.
If charged, Bashir could become the first sitting head of state this court charges with genocide.
The International Criminal Court makes rulings on crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.