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Storm over al-Bashir's surprise visit

Saturday August 28 2010

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al Bashir (R) arrives escorted by Kenya's Tourism minister Najib Balala for the promulgation of Kenya's New Constitution at the Uhuru Park grounds on August 27, 2010 in Nairobi. AFP / PHOTO

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al Bashir (R) arrives escorted by Kenya's Tourism minister Najib Balala for the promulgation of Kenya's New Constitution at the Uhuru Park grounds on August 27, 2010 in Nairobi. AFP / PHOTO  

By PETER LEFTIE [email protected] AND KEVIN KELLY [email protected]

Kenya was in the eye of a storm on Saturday over its decision to invite Sudan President Omar al-Bashir to witness the promulgation of the new Constitution on Friday.

US President Barack Obama led the condemnation by the international community and local leaders over the Sudan leader’s presence during the historic ceremony at Uhuru Park.

In a statement issued from the White House, President Obama said he was “disappointed that Kenya hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in defiance of International Criminal Court arrest warrants for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide”.

He added: “In Kenya and beyond, justice is a critical ingredient for lasting peace.”

Noting that Kenya has committed itself to full cooperation with the ICC, President Obama asked Kenya to honour those commitments.

The US leader spoke as the ICC reported Kenya to the UN Security Council over President Bashir’s visit.

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A statement said the court “informs the Security Council of the United Nations and the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute about Omar al-Bashir’s presence on the territory of the Republic of Kenya, in order for them to take any measure they may deem appropriate”.

“The Republic of Kenya has a clear obligation to co-operate with the Court in relation to the enforcement of such warrants of arrest,” it added.

The Southern Sudan government was also furious, accusing Kenya of humiliating its leader Salva Kiir by inviting him and President Bashir to the same function.

“We were shocked to see him there. Why did the Kenya government invite our president while knowing very well that they had invited Bashir,” charged the head of the Southern Sudan referendum campaign, John Andruga Duku.

“Our president was all set to travel to Nairobi for the ceremony and had even sent his advance team, only to be called by President Bashir on Thursday afternoon informing him that he would be in Nairobi. Mr Kiir had no choice but to cancel his trip because protocol does not allow them to travel out of the country at the same time,” Mr Duku added.

In Nairobi, ODM ministers and MPs under the auspices of the Parliamentarians for Global Action demanded an explanation from the government over President Bashir’s attendance saying they were duped by the government that Mr Kiir would represent Sudan at the ceremony.

Addressing a press conference at Orange House, Cabinet ministers Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, James Orengo and Amason Kingi said they were seeking answers over the incident.

“We would like to assure Kenyans that ODM will do its best, as a partner in the coalition government, to obtain proper explanation from the ministry of Foreign Affairs,” said Prof Nyong’o. “We will seek to know how President Bashir came here and why the government as a whole was neither consulted nor informed before such an unfortunate invitation was issued.”

The Parliamentarians for Global Action, who included David Musila, David Were, Musa Sirma and Abdul Bahari said they would demand a ministerial statement on the matter when Parliament resumes on Tuesday.

Were shocked

“We were shocked beyond words when we heard the master of ceremonies announce the arrival of President Bashir at Uhuru Park,” said Mr Musila. “His name was not on the list of invited guests that we had and some of us had been assured by a government official that Sudan would be represented at the function by President of the South, Mr Salva Kiir.”

The Sudan leader has two arrest warrants over charges that relate to atrocities committed by Khartoum’s forces in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

Kenya, as a signatory to the treaty which set up the ICC, was obliged to arrest President Bashir, who was indicted in March 2009 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, and in July 2010 on charges of genocide.

Earlier, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had urged Kenya to arrest Mr Bashir and hand him over to the ICC.

She also called on Kenya to cooperate with the court in its investigation of the post-election violence here.

But, even in the face of the outrage, Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula said that President Bashir was invited alongside other heads of state from neighbouring countries because it was in Kenya’s best interests that Sudan gets lasting peace.

“We have no regrets at all. Kenya chaired the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and we have to talk to both sides. Peace in Sudan is our interest. Somalia has been a big headache for Kenya and we do not want another (such) situation. He was our guest and we are happy that he honoured the invitation,” Mr Wetang’ula said.

The minister said the government had sent out an invitation to Mr Kiir but he had written back to say he could not leave the country when President Bashir was out. Mr Kiir is the first vice-president of Sudan.

Mr Wetang’ula cited an African Union resolution that was transmitted to the United Nations, in which African leaders asked the ICC to lift the warrant of arrest against President Bashir as they seek other ways of resolving the Darfur conflict.

The minister dismissed claims that the invitation was meant to spite the ICC whose investigators are in Kenya gathering evidence over the 2008 post-election violence.

Not responsible

“President Bashir is not responsible for post-election violence,” he said.

A source familiar with ICC investigations in Kenya disclosed that a senior official at The Hague, Emergi Rogogier, visited Kenya last week to assess the government’s commitment and cooperation in the matter.

It is unlikely that the ICC official will return a positive verdict to the ICC after Mr Bashir’s visit.

“ICC has always suspected that the government is paying lip service to the efforts to prosecute those who funded the violence and is not ready to support its efforts to have them held accountable,” said the source who cannot be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

President Bashir arrived at Uhuru Park shortly after 9 a.m. and was ushered to the main dais. He appeared relaxed and smiled as he shook hands with other African leaders there.

Mr Wetang’ula said Mr Bashir was in Nairobi “because we invited all neighbours and he is a neighbour”.

“I am sure we are enhancing peace, security and stability of this region more than anything else,” he added.

President Bashir in July visited Chad, which was criticised by the EU and human rights groups for its refusal to arrest him. That visit was his first to an ICC member state.

But Chad and Kenya are members of the AU, which has said that the arrest warrants against Mr Bashir are counterproductive for the quest for peace in Darfur.