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Sudan's Wanted President Goes Abroad, But Sticks To Friendly Ground

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has made his fist trip abroad since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest, with a one-day visit to neighboring Eritrea. The trip, along with a planned visit to Qatar, have drawn attention, but as the risk that President Bashir would be apprehended on such a visit may be exaggerated.

For his first trip abroad with an international arrest warrant on his head, President Omar al-Bashir chose another country that has long maintained a defiant posture towards western countries.

Eritrea's relations with the international community have deteriorated in recent years amid President Isaias Afwerki's refusal to cooperate in a border dispute with Ethiopia. Like Sudan, the Eritrean regime has come under harsh criticism from Western human rights groups for repressive policies.

Shortly after the ICC warrant was issued earlier this month, Eritrea invited President Bashir to the country in a show of solidarity.

The court has urged all countries, including those like Eritrea that have not signed up to the ICC's Rome Statute, to arrest President Bashir if the opportunity arises. Sudan did not provide advance notice of the trip and offered few details. But Issaka Souaré, a legal researcher at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies in South Africa said there was little risk involved in the visit.

"Eritrea is not a state party to the Rome Statute," said Issaka Souaré. "There is nothing binding in the Rome Statute on non-signatories to apprehend someone against whom there is an arrest warrant. Given that he was officially invited by the president of Eritrea and given that Eritrea is not a state party, one could argue that there is no risk at all on President al-Bashir."

More discussion has been generated by President Bashir's planned visit to Qatar at the end of the month to attend an Arab League summit. Most members of the League, including Qatar, are not members of the ICC, and the group has called for the arrest warrant to be removed.

But the trip to Qatar would involve flying over international airspace, and the possibility that President Bashir's flight could be intercepted. Sudan's Committee of Islamic Scholars has urged the president not to attend, for fear of his safety, providing Mr. Bashir a possible way of saving face while backing out of the trip.

But Souare downplays the threat the president would face.

"I think they may be exaggerating arguing that his plane might be intercepted," he said. "What do they fear? Someone bombing the plane or trying to down the plane in some other way? Given that Qatar is not a state party and that Qatar has invited the Sudanese president, and he would very likely be using his personal jet, I see no risk at all in him traveling there."

The Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, has said President Bashir will not be arrested if he attends the summit.