Al-Bashir caused 'unprecedented diplomatic crisis'

Johannesburg - Monday newspapers devoted front pages to reports on Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, with editors describing the drama around his arrival in South Africa as an "unprecedented diplomatic crisis" and the government "playing chicken" with its international legal obligations.

To make matters worse, no-one seems to know where Al-Bashir is, who has been barred by a court order from leaving the country until an urgent application is ruled on by the High Court in Pretoria.

While South Africa apparently believed he would be protected from prosecution when he attended an African Union summit in Johannesburg, it probably did not anticipate that the SA Litigation Centre's (SALC) would make a court application to order the government to arrest him.

On Sunday, Judge Hans Fabricius ordered that the Department of Home Affairs ensure that all points of entry and exit be informed that al-Bashir is not allowed to leave until the SA Litigation Centre's (SALC) application that South Africa arrest him, is concluded.

Beeld newspaper on Monday said officials at OR Tambo International Airport refused to accept the court order. Die Burger, Beeld and The Witness carried reports on Al-Bashir on its front pages, quoting the ruling African National Congress urging the government not to bow to pressure from the ICC to arrest him.

The Mercury newspaper in KwaZulu-Natal said it understood that he had left South Africa, "escorted by all the security detail, including the Saps VIP Protection Unit, metro police and intelligence officials".

Justice department spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga told News24 on Monday morning: "As the legal team we move from the premise that he is still within the country as we are yet to verify these conflicting reports. We are still on course in finalising our papers to file by 09:00."

Business Day published an editorial comment on its front page saying the government has been "playing chicken with its international and domestic legal obligations" and this started "long ago” - when it invited Al-Bashir to watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup (which he did not attend).

But this time, he decided to attend an African Union summit in Johannesburg, placing pressure on the government, as a signatory to the ICC Act of 2002, under obligation to act on its arrest warrants. South Africa remains a signatory despite the AU complaining about the ICC being racist.

"By not withdrawing from the Rome Statute and repealing the ICC Act it [the government] has placed itself in an invidious position where it may have to arrest Mr Bashir and ship him to The Hague if the courts decide so," read the Business Day editorial.

The Star newspaper said South Africa was dealing with a "very sensitive matter".

"The matter has placed President Jacob Zuma and the government in an unprecedented diplomatic crisis...

"This is perhaps the ultimate test, not only for Zuma's dual responsibilities - to the ICC and to the AU - but also for the court itself. With its resources significantly stretched and the backlash from the AU, it feels like the events playing out in South Africa around Bashir right now could signal its death knell."

The Citizen newspaper said, "South Africa should not allow itself to be cowed by AU members who are simply not prepared to honour their human rights commitments".

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