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African Union urges United Nations to halt al-Bashir case

Sudan's serving President Omar al-Bashir has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Sudan's serving President Omar al-Bashir has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • African Union calls for delay in war crimes proceedings against Sudanese president
  • AU says proceedings may jeopardize peace efforts
  • Omar al-Bashir charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity
  • Earlier this week, ICC judges ruled Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir could be charged with genocide

(CNN) -- The African Union has called on the United Nations Security Council to delay war crimes proceedings against Sudan's president, saying a decision allowing genocide charges harms peace efforts.

"The African Union has always emphasized its commitment to justice and its total rejection of impunity," it said in a statement Thursday.

"At the same time, the AU reiterates that the search for justice should be pursued in a manner not detrimental to the search for peace. The latest decision by the ICC (International Criminal Court) runs in the opposite direction."

Judges at the ICC cleared the way Wednesday for President Omar al-Bashir to be charged with genocide for his role in a five-year campaign of violence in western Sudan's Darfur region.

Al-Bashir, who remains in office, is already charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo had the genocide charge on his original arrest warrant for al-Bashir, but the pretrial judges left off the charge when they approved the warrant last March.

Moreno-Ocampo appealed in July, saying that the judges' standard of proof for adding the genocide charge was too high. The appellate court agreed with Moreno-Ocampo and ruled in his favor Wednesday.

The pretrial chamber must now determine whether to add the charge to the arrest warrant based on the lower standard of proof, a process that could take several weeks.

It is a crucial time for Sudan, the AU said, with national elections scheduled for April and a referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan scheduled for next year. Al-Bashir is the front-runner in that vote, despite the possibility of a genocide charge.

While the AU said it supports the democratic transformation of the country, charging al-Bashir with genocide poses "serious risks and dangers" to peace and reconciliation in Sudan and stability in the region, it said.

Though the court operates independently from the United Nations, it is possible for the U.N. Security Council to step in, ICC spokeswoman Sonia Robla said.

If the Security Council has referred a case to the court -- such as the al-Bashir case -- it may order a delay of as long as 12 months, under the Rome Statute that established the court, Robla said.

The Security Council could not intervene in cases the prosecutor has decided to pursue or which countries have requested the court to investigate, she said.

"The African Union is confident that, with genuine support from the international community, the Sudanese people have the capacity to triumph over their long-standing divisions and accelerate the process of the pursuit of democracy and development," the AU said.

The warrant for al-Bashir was the first ever issued by the ICC for a sitting head of state. It currently includes five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. It also includes two charges of war crimes for intentionally directing attacks against civilians and for pillaging.

Al-Bashir has traveled to several countries since the warrant was issued, even though any country that is party to the ICC has an obligation to hand him over to The Hague, the court says.

He openly attended the African Union conference in Ethiopia, which ended this week. Ethiopia is not party to the ICC.

A genocide charge could further isolate Sudan, but it could also mobilize African nations around Sudan. Leaders from several African countries have said the ICC has been unfair to Africa, and they have threatened to pull out of the court.

The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Darfur, and 2.5 million have been forced from their homes. Sudan denies that the death toll is that high.

The violence in Darfur erupted in 2003 after rebels began an uprising against the Sudanese government. To counter the rebels, Sudanese authorities armed and cooperated with Arab militias that went from village to village in Darfur, killing, torturing and raping residents, according to the United Nations, Western governments and human rights organizations.

The militias targeted civilian members of tribes from which the rebels drew strength.

CNN's David McKenzie contributed to this report.