Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was charged at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday with genocide and crimes against humanity, with the indictment alleging he orchestrated the violence that has devastated his country's Darfur region and left hundreds of thousands dead.
Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is also seeking a worldwide arrest warrant to have al-Bashir brought before the international tribunal for his role in the five-year-old conflict.
The charges accuse the top leadership of the Sudanese government of sponsoring militia groups called janjaweed, which have attempted to wipe out African tribes in Darfur with a campaign of murder, rape and deportation.
Moreno-Ocampo was undeterred by concern that his indictment against al-Bashir might lead to vengeance against Darfur refugees, and the closing of Sudan's doors to relief agencies and possibly peacekeeping troops.
"The genocide is ongoing," he said, saying that preventing systematic rape was a key element of the campaign. "Seventy-year-old women, six-year-old girls are raped."
Moreno-Ocampo filed 10 charges against al-Bashir: three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and two of murder.
Arrest unlikely any time soon
A three-judge panel of the court is expected to take months to study the evidence before deciding whether to order al-Bashir's arrest.
Despite the charges, al-Bashir is unlikely to be sent to The Hague any time soon. Sudan rejects the court's jurisdiction and refuses to arrest suspects. An arrest warrant would hamper his travels to other countries, however.
"Al-Bashir now is not going to be able to leave the Sudan without facing arrest," said Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal and a former war crimes prosecutor. "He will effectively be in prison within the Sudan itself."
Akhavan told CBC News that in the long run, the Sudanese government might be persuaded to hand over al-Bashir — in the same way "sustained international pressure" forced the Yugoslavian government to turn in former president Slobodan Milosevic in 2001.
"It may not be possible to arrest al-Bashir today, but circumstances may change tomorrow," Akhavan said. "The message has to be that you cannot commit genocide with impunity."
Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be charged at the International Criminal Court. In the last decade, two other state leaders — Milosevic in 1999, and Charles Taylor in 2003 when he was Liberian president — have been indicted by other, special international tribunals set up by the United Nations.
Milosevic died in 2006 while his genocide trial was wrapping up in The Hague, and Taylor is currently on trial for crimes against humanity at a special UN-sponsored court in the Dutch city.
Two other Sudanese have already had proceedings launched against them at the International Criminal Court, in both cases on allegations they contributed to the genocide in Darfur. Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Haround and militia leader Ali Kushayb are wanted on arrest warrants issued in May 2007, but Sudan refuses to hand them over.
Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo's decision to go after al-Bashir is expected to cause further turmoil in Sudan, and some analysts fear it could make life even worse for refugees living in Darfur's sprawling camps and reliant on humanitarian aid for food and water.
Moreno-Ocampo said most members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic African groups were driven from their homes by Sudanese forces and the janjaweed in 2004. Since then, the janjaweed have been targeting the camps aiming to starve the refugees.
"They [al-Bashir's forces] don't need gas chambers because the desert will kill them," he said, drawing a comparison to Nazi Germany's notorious method of mass murder during the Holocaust.
The refugees "have no more water, no more food, no more cattle. They have lost everything. They live because international humanitarian organizations are providing food for them," he said.
'Is it easy to stop? No'
An estimated 300,000 people have died in Darfur since conflict erupted there in 2003 when local ethnic groups took up arms against al-Bashir's Arab-dominated government in the capital, Khartoum, accusing authorities of years of neglect.
Moreno-Ocampo said the international community needs to act to prevent more deaths. "We are dealing with a genocide. Is it easy to stop? No. Do we need to stop? Yes. Do we have to stop? Yes," he said.
In an indication of the fury that could be unleashed with the charges against al-Bashir, Sudanese state television reported on Sunday that his ruling National Congress Party had warned of "more violence and blood" in Darfur.
The Sudanese government has also said the indictment could affect the work of humanitarian organizations in Sudan.
"The Darfur issue is an issue for the people and government of Sudan," Information Minister Ibrahim al- Zahawi said at a news conference on Sunday.
There are fears, too, that the fresh Darfur case could spark a backlash against the 9,000-strong UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It was the UN Security Council that in March 2005 asked Moreno-Ocampo to investigate crimes in Darfur.
"The country is furious and they are very angry, and they are directing this anger toward the UN, who operate a large mission here," freelance reporter Peter Martell told CBC News from Khartoum. "So the fear is that may have some implication on the mission of the UN in Sudan."
The UN said Monday it is counting on Sudan to co-operate in keeping its staff from harm. The BBC reported, however, that the UN will withdraw non-essential staff from its mission in Sudan beginning Tuesday.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "expects that the Government of Sudan will continue to ... ensure the safety and security of all United Nations personnel and property," his spokesperson, Michele Montas, said in a statement.