News / Middle East

Sudanese Chief of Arab Observers in Syria Slammed by Rights Groups

In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network purports to show Arab League monitors visiting the Baba Amr area of Homs in Syria, December 28, 2011. (AP cannot independently verify the content, date, location or authenticity of this
In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network purports to show Arab League monitors visiting the Baba Amr area of Homs in Syria, December 28, 2011. (AP cannot independently verify the content, date, location or authenticity of this

Human rights groups and Syrian opposition activists are outraged that a Sudanese general from a nation with a checkered human rights record is heading an Arab league mission to measure Syria's crackdown on dissent.

The critics say General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi's actions as a military commander and intelligence chief during Sudan's recent conflicts make him unfit for the Arab League post.

About 60 League-sanctioned observers are in Syria to check the government of President Bashar al-Assad's compliance with pledges to end the crackdown on dissent and release political detainees.

Some media reports say a few dozen of them come from Sudan, a nation highly criticized by human rights groups for its record of violence against government dissenters during years of civil unrest.

Al-Dabi, 63, is a key figure in President Omar al-Bashir's Sudanese government. Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes allegedly committed in western Sudan's Darfur region.

"The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility," Amnesty International said in a statement this week

Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, is closely watching al-Dabi's moves. SNC advisor Ausama Monajed told VOA the group is "seriously considering" asking the Arab League to replace al-Dabi, but not just yet.

"We will wait to see if there is any indication that the monitoring mission will submit a report [on the situation in Syria] that is somewhat biased towards the Assad government," he said. An Arab League official defended the choice of al-Dabi to the Associated Press, saying he enjoyed the support of all 22 members.

But Al-Dabi has long been intertwined with the Sudanese leadership.

After two decades as a Sudanese army officer, al-Dabi backed the 1989 coup that brought Mr. Bashir to power and was rewarded with the post of head of military intelligence that year.

Officers opposed to Bashir's takeover attempted their own coup in 1990, but Bashir loyalists foiled the plot and executed more than 20 alleged conspirators.

Magdi Gizouli, a Sudan analyst at the Rift Valley Institute, says that opposition activists blame al-Dabi for the executions.

Al-Dabi switched roles in 1995 to serve as chief of Sudan's foreign spy agency. He returned to the military in 1996 to oversee operations against an insurgency in what was then southern Sudan.

Adeeb Yousif, a Sudanese human rights activist based in San Francisco, said al-Dabi was a front-line commander in Khartoum's civil war against southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

"He was a very tough person, he did not have any mercy in killing innocent civilians," Yousif said.

Al-Dabi briefly served as a special presidential envoy in Darfur in 1999, a role that brought more criticism of his rights record.

Darfur's Masalit tribe accuses al-Dabi of arming and mobilizing Arab Janjaweed militiamen who attacked Masalit communities and forced many to flee their homes that year.

Yousif, who heads the Sudan-based Darfur Reconciliation and Development Organization, accused al-Dabi of committing a "genocide" against the Masalit.

No charges were filed against the general. His brief appointment in Darfur preceded the founding of International Criminal Court in 2002.

Al-Dabi left his Darfur post in 2000 for a four-year assignment as Sudanese ambassador to Qatar.

But he later returned as a presidential advisor on Darfur in 2005 as the region was engulfed in war between the Khartoum government and Darfuri rebels.

Andrew Natsios is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and served as U.S. special envoy to Sudan from 2006 to 2007. He says there were a few Khartoum officials in Darfur who were moderating forces.

"I do not remember al-Dabi being one of them," he said.

Al-Dabi, however, was a key conduit as the U.S. softened its diplomatic approach towards Sudan.

Timothy Carney, U.S. ambassador to Sudan from 1995 to 1997, said he met al-Dabi in 1996 to discuss U.S. concerns about Sudan's alleged sponsorship of international terrorism.

"Al-Dabi was enormously cooperative on the terrorism questions," Carney said. "In July 1996, he accompanied a Washington-based U.S. officer and myself to inspect camps that the United States thought might be used for the training of terrorists."

Analyst Gizouli said al-Dabi also made an offer to the United States to deport al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who moved to Sudan in 1991 and set up a network of businesses and training camps.

Carney said U.S. officials identified bin Laden as a terrorist financier at the time and wanted him out of places where he had great freedom of action.

Washington pressed for bin Laden to face justice in Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh's refusal to take back the al-Qaida chief prompted Sudan to deport him to Afghanistan in 1996.

In Carney's view, al-Dabi's combination of intelligence, military, and diplomatic experience makes him well-suited for the role of leading the Arab League's Syria observer mission.

"I would argue that General al-Dabi is a man of considerable brain power who understands completely the human rights dimension," Carney said. "He has experienced a lot of it as a senior military figure in Sudan. I think you can expect to see a sensitivity especially to the human rights issues in Syria."

But U.S. Representative Donald Payne, who has visited Sudan about a dozen times since taking office in 1989, disagrees.

"Any Sudanese official who is close to the president, an indicted war criminal, and continues to ascend in that leadership, is part of a pariah government," he said.

"Why the Arab League, out of all the countries in the organization, would decide to put this general in charge of their mission astonishes me," he said. "It shows a lack of true interest and concern in trying to come up with a solution [to Syria's unrest]."

Since leading the first observer mission to Homs on Tuesday, al-Dabi has said Syria's government is cooperating well with his monitors. He also has said his team needs more time to get a clear picture of what is happening in Homs and other centers of the nine-month anti-Assad rebellion.

12/30 PM spelling corrected of: Magdi Gizouli

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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