A South African online newspaper reported that President Jacob Zuma and his key security ministers helped Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir flee the country, despite a court order and an International Criminal Court’s outstanding warrant for Bashir’s arrest. Zuma and four ministers hatched the plan and pretended not to know of his whereabouts, government sources told Mail & Guardian.

Zuma’s plot to get Bashir out of South Africa was a tightly kept secret and few officials were aware of the plan, according to Mail & Guardian. But experts said it would be no surprise if the South African government did in fact facilitate his departure, given a history of political hostility toward the ICC on the African continent.

“I cannot imagine that President Bashir could take off from a military base – to which location his jet had been moved from a civilian airport – without the knowledge if not active cooperation of the South African government,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.


Bashir is wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes during the Darfur conflict in Sudan that raged on for years, starting in 2003. The outstanding warrant alleged he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and includes counts for murder, torture and extermination, genocide by killing and indirect command of attacks against civilians as leader of the Sudanese army during the conflict.

Last week, the ICC had its best chance in years to arrest the Sudanese leader when Bashir visited South Africa for the African Union summit, which began June 7. A local NGO, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, called on the government to bar him from leaving. But Bashir's plane left a military airport near the capital Pretoria unchecked by national authorities who were ordered by South Africa’s High Court to stop and arrest him.

“It should be noted that the court case was highly abnormal in that it was a little-known, self-appointed NGO that tried to get a judge to force the executive branch to do something it was not prepared to do on its own initiative,” Pham said in an email Friday.

South Africa is one of 34 African nations that are States Parties to the Rome Statute and members of the ICC. But the African country is not the first to allow Bashir to visit and leave. Bashir has visited Kenya and Nigeria without conflict. African politicians have long said the court unfairly targets African leaders and countries as well as overlooks crimes committed in other parts of the world.

In 2009, several African countries -- including Comoros, Djibouti and Senegal -- called on the continent to withdraw from the statute in protest against Bashir’s indictment. The African Union, a 54-member bloc that represents the continent’s governments, has also declared that no sitting head of state should be prosecuted. South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, said this week the ICC is no longer useful and is “a court of last resort for the prosecution of crimes against humanity,” News24 reported.

Obed Bapela, the head of the ANC’s international relations sub-committee and deputy co-operative governance minister, told Mail & Guardian his committee was reviewing South Africa’s ICC membership. In regards to Bashir, Bapela said the government had to choose between the law and politics.

“We would have been seen as lackeys of the West. We had to choose between the unity of Africa and the ICC, and we chose Africa. We said, 'we can deal with the ICC later,'” he told Mail & Guardian on Friday.

Although it could not be independently confirmed that the South African government had enabled Bashir’s escape from handcuffs, experts said the report comes as no surprise. “When coupled with the longstanding ICC problem with political legitimacy in Africa, whatever its legal right, the only surprise is that there is anyone surprised by the outcome,” Pham said Friday.