TIME Sudan

The Sudanese President’s Escape Highlights the Determination of African Lawyers

Omar al-Bashir
Shiraaz Mohamed—AP Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen during the opening session of the African Union summit in Johannesburg on June 14, 2015

John Prendergast is the founding director of the Enough Project, where Akshaya Kumar is a policy analyst.

Creative lawyering is helping to put international criminal justice back in vogue

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who has been dodging an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for years, is now safely back in Khartoum. But he returns branded with the scarlet letter of a wanted man, a fugitive from international justice.

Over the weekend, a South African judge responded to a local group’s petition for his arrest by issuing a court order preventing Bashir, who stands accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, from leaving the country. Bashir was in South Africa to mingle with other presidents and prime ministers at the African Union’s semi-annual summit. The AU’s ongoing opposition to the ICC’s work in Africa had a prime position on the agenda. But creative lawyering helped South African civil society groups steal the headlines and turn the summit’s spotlight back to Darfur’s long-suffering people.

Undoubtedly, South Africa’s judges and lawyers are this story’s heroes. On the morning of June 15, Judge Dunstan Mlambo ruled that his government’s failure to arrest Bashir is inconsistent with the South African Constitution. The judge demanded an account of how Bashir was allowed to leave the country despite a court order prohibiting it, when he left and who signed off on his departure. While some may frame Bashir’s brazen escape as a setback for the international justice movement, the South African court’s commitment to upholding the rule of law must be applauded. Moreover, the South African Litigation Center’s brave challenge of their government’s decision to allow Bashir immunity should be celebrated. Today, African lawyers and judges stood together in solidarity with African victims to push for justice against one of Africa’s most notorious perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) did not do the same. A representative for the ANC said on Sunday that the ICC was “no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended.” On Monday, South African government lawyers appeared in court to argue against an arrest warrant, notwithstanding their obligations as a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty which requires states to uphold and enforce ICC actions. After originally feigning ignorance of Bashir’s whereabouts, after the court demanded his arrest, a government lawyer finally confessed that Bashir had left the country.

The opposition of African heads of state to the international justice movement is not news. While charges of orchestrating murder, rape and persecution were hanging over his head, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta labelled the International Criminal Court a “toy of declining imperialist powers.” Even though the court recently dropped its charges against Kenyatta in part because of disappearing or intimidated witnesses, African leaders’ heated animosity towards the ICC has not chilled.

Communities that have lived through these crimes, however, tend to have a distinctly different point of view.

In Darfur, where hundreds of thousands continue to be displaced by government violence, survivors are vehement in their calls for criminal prosecution and accountability. In neighboring South Sudan, people share the same view. A June 2014 study (in South Sudan by the American Bar Association) found that “every person interviewed indicated that there must be accountability, at all levels, for the atrocities committed during the current crisis.” In a 2010 survey by the University of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, 98% of respondents in the Central African Republic said the people responsible for the violence should be held accountable. Even as their governments obstruct international justice efforts, communities that have suffered through mass atrocities continue to demand accountability. Luckily, creative lawyering is helping to put international criminal justice back in vogue.

This weekend’s dramatic court proceedings in South Africa are just one example. On the other side of the continent, an innovative approach to universal jurisdiction has led to a new hybrid court in Senegal, where Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré has been living in exile. A quarter century after his fall from power, civil society groups demanding Habré’s prosecution have finally succeeded in getting their day in court. In July, Habré’s trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture will begin at the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal’s court system. This hybrid approach represents the first time that a universal jurisdiction claim has gone to trial in Africa.

Seventy years ago, Robert Jackson inaugurated the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg by expressing the hope that those prosecutions would “put the forces of international law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace.” Winston Churchill, in contrast, believed that Nazi leaders should be “hunted down and shot.” However, in the end, a more measured approach prevailed, substituting the hand of vengeance with the judgment of the law.

A decade after Darfur first entered headlines for the Sudanese government’s abuses against its marginalized Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities, Bashir’s forces are continuing that campaign. Impunity has allowed the same Janjaweed forces who directed attacks over a decade ago to be given charge of better equipped and government financed terror brigades called the Rapid Support Forces. In Darfur, due to the Sudanese government’s obstruction, international law’s force has yet to be put to service on the side of peace.

But there is a silver lining. From the African Union-backed effort to prosecute Habre in Senegal, to the South African court’s ruling on Bashir’s arrest, accountability efforts are gaining ground. Despite head of state opposition, creative lawyers, civil society groups in Africa are recapturing the best of the legacy of Nuremberg.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Sudan

Sudan’s President Escapes War Crimes Arrest in South Africa

Omar al-Bashir
Shiraaz Mohamed—AP Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen during the opening session of the African Union summit in Johannesburg on June 14, 2015

South Africa's failure to arrest Omar al-Bashir is a further blow to the credibility of the International Criminal Court

Born in a more hopeful era, when citizens of the world committed to stamping out injustice and holding genocidal dictators and warlords accountable for crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Court in the Hague suffered a major blow on Monday when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir escaped South Africa on his presidential jet, foiling yet again a six-year quest to bring him to justice.

The 71-year-old, who has ruled Sudan with an iron first for two and a half decades, stands accused by the ICC of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to the 2003 conflict in Darfur, which claimed more than 300,000 lives in a gruesome orgy of decapitation, rape and torture committed by government militias. Al-Bashir denies the charges.

So confident was al-Bashir in his impunity that he landed in Johannesburg on June 13 to attend the opening of the African Union summit and mug for the cameras, despite the fact that, as a signatory to the convention that created the ICC, South Africa is legally obliged to arrest the Sudanese president and transfer him to the Netherlands. The South African authorities did not. Instead they allowed him to leave the country on the second day of the conference, despite a judicial order calling for him to remain.

Al-Bashir’s willingness to travel to Johannesburg in spite of two international arrest warrants is an indication that not only has the ICC lost credibility, but that South Africa, once a beacon for justice and human rights on the continent, has bowed to political expediency. “This marks a moment of historic failure,” says Eric Reeves, a professor and a Sudan expert at Smith College in the U.S., and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide. “If the only body that is capable of taking on the massive, indisputable atrocities that have taken place in Darfur over the past 13 years, if that body is flouted by sheer machinations of an indicted génocidaires, who is allowed to leave a country that is a signatory to the ICC, then the court is clearly deeply troubled.”

The impasse over how to deal with the pending visit one of the world’s most wanted criminals was set in place on June 5, when South Africa’s Minister of International Affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, signed an agreement granting diplomatic immunity to delegates participating in the African Union summit, directly contravening South Africa’s responsibilities to the ICC. But once al-Bashir arrived, the South African Litigation Centre, a legal-rights group, argued before Pretoria’s high court that South Africa’s responsibilities to the ICC carried more weight. The judge agreed, ordering the police to keep al-Bashir in the country until the courts could decide if al-Bashir should be handed over to the ICC.

But even before the court came to session on Monday, June 15, al-Bashir slipped out of the country on his presidential jet. Officials at the military airport say his name was not on the flight manifest, so they could not stop the airplane’s departure. Representatives of the South African Litigation Centre are calling contempt of court, but it is unclear what the legal repercussions, if any, will be.

The ICC has no police force of its own; instead it relies on member states to carry out arrests on its behalf. Increasingly, they are failing to do so. Al-Bashir has visited at least four other ICC member states — Malawi, Kenya, Chad and Congo — in the past several years. None of them attempted to arrest him either. But South Africa should have been different, says Reeves. “The disgrace could not be greater. The world stood by South Africa at its time of need, and now South Africa sides with a génocidaire, someone we know is responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of people. It is an absolute betrayal of Nelson Mandela’s legacy.”

South Africans, however, are divided. South African President Jacob Zuma told CNN six years ago that he would not hesitate to arrest al-Bashir should he ever set foot in the country. But a recent explosion of anti-African xenophobic violence in South Africa has forced the country into a charm offensive as it struggles to undo the diplomatic damage. As the furor deepened over al-Bashir’s presence at the African Union summit on Saturday, Zuma’s African National Congress party executive committee said in a statement that “the International Criminal Court is no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended — being a court of last resort for the prosecution of crimes against humanity.” Instead, the statement argued, the court was biased against African leaders, of which al-Bashir’s Sudan was only “the latest example.”

The case is also the latest example of the ICC’s declining authority around the world. The U.S. is not a signatory, and early adopters Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have vocally dismissed its efforts as “selective” and “racist.” In 2009 the African Union vowed to stop cooperating with the court, leading to today’s impasse in South Africa.

As al-Bashir landed in Khartoum to the cheers of hundreds of supporters, his Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, lashed out at the ICC and the international community for disrupting the summit. “The participation could have been normal and without a fuss, but Africa’s enemies, Sudan’s enemies and the enemies of peace-loving countries wanted to try and turn it into a drama, to prevent the President from important participations.” The average African cares less about the summit than justice, argued South African columnist Simon Allison in the online newspaper the Daily Maverick. “To the ordinary African, the ICC is one of the few sources of justice available for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It’s hard to escape the feeling that international justice in Africa has just received a mortal blow; it’s even harder to deal with the realisation that South Africa delivered it.”

TIME Crowdsourcing

World’s First ‘Crowdsourced Country’ Campaign Aims to Solve World Hunger

Jeremiah Heaton hopes to establish an agricultural research center on a slice of unclaimed land to help solve the world's food shortages

A U.S. farmer who professes to have established the “Kingdom of North Sudan” so his daughter could be a princess launched the world’s first “crowdsourced country” campaign Tuesday to nail down his claim.

Virginia resident Jeremiah Heaton is hoping to found a state-of-the-art agricultural research center on some 800 sq. mi. of ostensibly unclaimed land between Egypt and Sudan known as Bir Tawil.

The Kingdom of North Sudan, he says on the Indiegogo crowdfunding page, will be “a nation fully dedicated to researching and developing solutions for our current global food shortages and impending food crisis.”

Through the campaign, Heaton intends to fund some of the world’s top scientists to conduct research at the center and develop sustainable agriculture methods focusing on ways to improve food production using less water.

He’s even offering a range of incentives to garner donations for the project, which he estimates will cost $505.5 million over five years. For $25 you could have an honorary title in the new kingdom, or a knighthood for $300. Meanwhile, $1.5 million will give you naming rights for a future international airport or the capital city for $1.7 million.

You can even donate $2,500 to the campaign to “torment the king” by subjecting him to 48 hours of continuous Justin Bieber music.

Heaton began his wildly ambitious campaign after his 6-year-old daughter asked to be a real-life princess. Taking his daughter’s wish literally, he began searching for terra nullius, or unclaimed land, and found Bir Tawil in East Africa. On June 16, 2014, he visited the area and planted a homemade flag for his new country.

But to go any further with his plan, Heaton must receive legal recognition from Egypt and Sudan, the U.N. and other world bodies, which could prove tricky.

“There’s no way either Egypt or Sudan would let it happen,” Professor Paul Nugent, a former director of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, told al-Jazeera.

TIME Photojournalism Links

The 10 Best Photo Essays of the Month

A compilation of the 10 most interesting photo essays published online in April, as curated by Mikko Takkunen

This month’s Photojournalism Links collection highlights 10 excellent photo essays from across the world, including The New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter’s stunning aerial pictures documenting the ongoing drought in California.

Damon Winter: California Drought (The New York Times)

Bryan Denton: 100 Years Later, a Genocide Haunts the Armenian Psyche (The New York Times) These compelling pictures capture sites related to the Armenian genocide that took place one hundred years ago.

Newsha Tavakolian: Women Taking the Battle to ISIS (TIME LightBox) Powerful series on a cadre of female Kurdish soldiers fighting Islamic militants in Syria.

David Guttenfelder: Harnessing the Mekong (National Geographic) National Geographic Photography Fellow Guttenfelder’s work documents life along the Mekong River in five different countries.

Adriane Ohanesian: Inside Sudan’s War-Torn Darfur (TIME LightBox) These rare pictures capture rebels and fleeing civilians in Darfur.

Wayne Lawrence: Taking Back Detroit (National Geographic) Portraits and audio of Motor City residents.

James Mollison: Playground (Wired) Fascinating, insightful photographs of children’s playgrounds around world.

Moises Saman: Digging for Gold in the Andes (The New Yorker Photo Booth) Magnum photographer documents the unregulated gold mining in the Peruvian Andes.

Katie Orlinsky: Taken at the Border (The New Yorker Photo Booth) Orlinsky documents the U.S.-Mexico border from empty stash houses to young migrants who have been extorted.

Christopher Griffith: Foot Soldiers (The New York Times Magazine) Excellent photographs of Manhattan shoe shiners’ hands.

TIME portfolio

Inside Sudan’s War-Torn Darfur

Photographer Adriane Ohanesian followed refugees hiding in the Marra Mountains

The outcome had been all but certain. On April 27, two weeks after polls opened in Sudan, election organizers announced that President Omar al-Bashir, the 71-year-old incumbent, had won 94% of the vote.

With his quarter-century reign extended—the opposition boycotted the ballot and polling stations in Khartoum, the capital, were said to be largely deserted—Bashir will continue to avoid the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of war crimes over his role in the conflict in Darfur.

More than 300,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the unrest in Darfur, which ignited in 2003 after the government aimed to crack down on an insurgency in the western region. The U.N. estimates some 2 million people have been displaced as a result.

Adriane Ohanesian, a Nairobi-based photographer from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., first went to Sudan in 2010 and worked on a project about a marginalized group, the Beja, in the Red Sea State. That’s when she became interested in Darfur. Later that year, she traveled south to focus on the referendum and independence; South Sudan became its own country in July 2011. In 2012, she turned her focus to the fighting in the Nuba Mountains, but she hadn’t forgotten about Darfur.

Ohanesian had heard about a large group of civilians who had fled into Jebel Marra (the Marra Mountains) and away from government attacks and aerial bombardment. She and a Dutch journalist, Klaas van Dijken, began looking into how to document their suffering. They eventually received permission for access from the rebel group Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW).

In late February, they made it to caves located a two hour’s walk outside of a town called Sarong, from where the hundreds of civilians had fled. It was around dawn, Ohanesian says, and everyone was lighting fires to stay warm and make tea. “I don’t think any of these people had seen a foreigner in this area since 2010,” she said. “One woman burst into tears when they saw us.”

The two did a few interviews through their translator, and many of their stories were about government forces and aligned militias, coming into their towns, raping women, and pushing residents from their homes and into the mountains.

“I would hear these people’s stories… but I couldn’t see it for myself, which is always the challenge [for photographers],” says Ohanesian. “You see these people in the cave and on the mountains but you can’t see what’s happened to them before that, and that’s the really horrific part that I wish I could show but can’t.”

Ohanesian has committed her career to documenting humanitarian crises, traveling to places like Somalia, South Sudan and Burma. But Sudan was unique. “I’ve just never been to an area like this where people just have nothing,” she says. “The best thing I can do as a photographer is to show what I’ve seen on the ground and to tell others … If that sparks some sort of response, that’s wonderful.”

Adriane Ohanesian is freelance photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

TIME Sudan

Sudan Finance Minister Pushes Washington to Lift Sanctions

A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.
Abd Raouf—AP A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.

Sudanese minister of finance and national economy Bader Eldin Mahmmoud Abbas Mukhtar visited Washington recently to lobby the United States to lift sanctions and remove the country from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

This is the second time this year that a high profile Sudanese delegation has received visas to visit Washington. Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti visited in February for the National Prayer Breakfast. Mukhtar was in town for the World Bank-International Monetary Fund spring meetings, and his delegation included representatives from the Central Bank of Sudan.

Mukhtar met with Assistant Secretary of Treasury Marisa Lago and Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth on April 18. His goal, he tells TIME, was to move forward on the “improvement of the bilateral relations rather than always talking about domestic political issues in Sudan.”

The domestic political issues in Sudan — including the extensive fighting between numerous government and rebel factions, as well as the government denial of humanitarian aid and mounting allegations of military war crimes against civilians — were the subject of a February feature in TIME, “Sudan: The Forgotten War.

Sudan’s tactics in fighting rebel groups have been widely criticized. According to the U.N., the Sudanese Armed Forces burned an average of about 22 villages a day in Darfur over the first half of last year. In the South Kordofan region, reports of government planes bombing civilian and medical targets arrive regularly. In February, the United Nations Security Council threatened new sanctions against Sudan, and Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the U.N., accused Sudan of “obstruction, harassment and direct attacks that have impeded efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in Darfur.”

From TIME’s February story: “‘It is not any different than what is happening in Syria,’ says Tom Catena, a U.S. surgeon who runs the only full-scale hospital for the nearly 1 million civilians caught in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan. ‘It just has been going on three decades longer.’” (Catena is one of the 2015 TIME 100.)

Here’s the topline of Mukhtar’s interview with TIME at the Washington Press Club, with his quotes, condensed for length:

He is frustrated with the United States policy on Sudan. “Let me be frank with you,” Mukhtar says. “We have tried a lot to engage with the Americans. … They are always coming with moving political targets. … Our feel is that the object of the American policy towards Sudan is the regime change, not having any cooperation. … We are always trying to cooperate with the Americans … and the international community in combatting terrorism and we are adopting standards of antiterrorism finance in our financial systems and anti-money-laundering. … Instead of being rewarded for that, we have been punished.”

He is unwilling to entertain reports of human rights abuses in Sudan. Mukhtar denied allegations of humanitarian abuse, unethical mining of gold, and exploitation of citizens in Sudan. “This is reflected by some of the activist groups,” he says. (Gamal Goraish, a counselor from the Embassy of Sudan in the United States who was present at the interview, clarifies, “The Enough Project mainly.”) Mukhtar continues, “They are trying to say that a country or a government exploiting the people. What on Earth that a country or a responsible government that is slaying its people, exploiting them, abusing them, violating rights, not respecting them?”

He continues the Sudanese government’s denial of a mass Sudanese military rape of 221 women and girls in the Darfur village of Tabit, reported by Human Rights Watch. “Nobody can say that also government encouraging or motivating people to do bad things like this. Even in our religion in Sudan, this is out of any religion beliefs. … This has been crafted unfortunately even by some of the people inside the UNAMID (United Nations Mission in Darfur), trying to say that government of Sudan is encouraging such bad things. … The people of Sudan are not you see like animals in a forest.” (A woman with the Central Bank of Sudan, also part of the delegation, adds, “No man can treat woman badly, never.”) He concludes, “They talk about the collective raping event which is not true.”

He thinks the U.S. should support debt relief for Sudan, in part due to Sudan’s assistance to the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Sudan’s debt, according to the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, amounts to $43.5 billion, of which $2.6 billion is owed to the U.S. “We are playing a positive role in Libya trying to stabilize the situation there. With our partners there, we are pushing negotiations between the conflicting parties there in order to reach a compromise. … Now the situation in Darfur is much better… this not because the government goes there and killing the people irrationally, the conflict was being caused by the conflict on natural resources, by the nomads and the farmers, this is triggered the instability. … the government is trying to fix the situation, trying to reach compromise.”

He defends Sudan’s high arms import budget. “Buying weapons, a country which is facing lot of challenges, if the rebels started any activity in the United States, do you think that the government just will stay there just to come to power in Washington, or they should defeat them there? If any group of people are out of law… the responsible government should act responsibility to protect the security of the county and to bring security for the people and to prevent anarchy to happen in the country. … This is why we are trying to also strengthen our security capabilities and to strengthen our army. What do you expect us to do as a responsible government?”

The Central Bank of Sudan has approximately $21-24 billion in foreign exchange currency (Forex). “The international reserve is always evaluated in terms of months of imports. Now the Central Bank has about three months reserve of foreign currency and we are trying to build more reserves. Our import bill is $7-8 billion. You can calculate after that.”

TIME Sudan

Sudan’s Foreign Minister Denies War Crimes As UN Moves Toward New Sanctions

A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.
Abd Raouf—AP A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.

The United Nations Security Council threatened new sanctions Thursday against Sudan’s government, and United States Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, accused the country of “obstruction, harassment and direct attacks that have impeded efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in Darfur.”

Last week on February 4, Sudan Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti sat down with TIME while he was in Washington as guest of the National Prayer Breakfast. In a tense, 40-minute exchange, Karti, a devout Muslim, spoke of everything from his love of Jesus to his categorical denial of mass rape, which Human Rights Watch and other have reported that Sudanese armed forces perpetrated in Darfur.

When TIME showed Karti photos on an iPhone of burned children and legless women, who reported their injuries came from Sudanese government forces, Karti insisted that the government targets only combatants. “Nothing of that is happening,” he said, averting his eyes from the images. “Nobody is targeting his own people.”

His presence at the Breakfast was controversial, especially as he is lobbying the U.S. to lift sanctions and remove Sudan from its list of states that sponsor terror. Senator Bob Casey Jr., a congressional co-chair of the Breakfast, objected to Karti’s invitation to a meeting the Fellowship had scheduled with Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats during his visit.

Over the past three decades, Sudan’s government has been implicated in what Congress has termed two genocides, one in the nation’s south that cost as many of 2 million lives, in part from famine, and one in the nation’s western province of Darfur, where an additional 300,000 people died, according to the United Nations. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Karti oversaw the popular Defense Force militias for a time during the first genocide, and according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, Karti is also credited with organizing the janjaweed militia, the brutal forces that terrorized Darfur. Now, after South Sudan’s independence, the fighting is intensifying in South Kordofan, a border region in Sudan. Aerial bombardments by the government are routine. On January 20, a Medecins Sans Frontières hospital–one of the only sources of humanitarian aid in the region–was bombed for the second time, and the facility was forced to close.

Below is a transcript of TIME’s interview with Karti, edited only lightly for grammar clarity, published in full because Karti so rarely speaks on the record with reporters. The full story, “Sudan: The Forgotten War,” is in this week’s magazine and online here.

TIME: What kind of bridges do you want to build?

ALI AHMED KARTI: To me it begins from the faith, from bringing people together, from trying to build relations between nations, maybe they are different in their faith, and they may be for sure they are different in ethnicities, what is huge between south and west is this very big divide. So I’ve been educated and trained in a country whereby people, they do not know about the west. Still they think they can outreach. But what had been in the history was tremendously injuring the relationship between south, and between and west and east. To begin with the colonial period, when people were subjected to so many atrocities, and the history of that is still injuring their vision about how can they be together again with some people from the west.

I am a foreign minister of my country, and I have been following this not like any other Sudanese, normal Sudanese. Maybe a normal Sudanese, he would just remark that there is a problem. But to me the problem is projected in so many ways. I am a politician, I can see how damaging having bad relations with a great country like U.S. and also having media, negative media talking about my country and about my people. So this is one of the ways that I deemed very good, and it is fruitful, it proved to be fruitful through time. Yes, I am talking formally with the government, and I am talking formally with the ambassador there in Khartoum, but still there are so many ways of trying to get to the hearts of people other than this formal way, because in the formal relations, government to government, you have limits, but when it goes to the hearts of people, you don’t have limits.

It will be easy for me to invite others to see the country to see the situation, and to assess by themselves, even media, everybody who is interested in that. We have been open for so many years before, and I have been on this track for more than eight years now. And to me it will be the only way that I can go through, and the only way that will also help in projecting my country, and my people and the lifestyle of life there in the country and the moderate way of people used to live and the coexistence that have been through our life in the country since it has been a country called Sudan. We used to have different faiths, whether Islam, Christianity, nonbeliever also are still there in the country, in some parts of the eastern, south eastern parts of our country, and we used to lived together. We did not witness in our life or the life of our predecessors a kind of conflict based on religion. If you go there to Khartoum you will find people living together. You will find mosques and churches almost some meters between them, and we have never had in our history of fights just because somebody is a Muslim or a Christian. Not only this, but we are Muslims, we have also our schools in the Muslim sphere, also there are schools in the church, we have different church, we have the Sudan Council of church, we have also evangelicals, we have Coptics in the country, and themselves, they are also making a very good example of coexistence between themselves and between them all and the Muslim community. And some friends who visit Sudan from this country, they are seeing how people are living together, how people are receptive to them, some of them were church leaders, some of them were writers, and some of the activists who have been there in the country, they have seen something different, some of them came here to speak to friends and to others that things are not like what is going on in the media. Things are totally different.

In this respect, I would hope to see you there, to go freely, we would not make any program for you, not only you but other friends who are working on this. You will be there, we will help you to go wherever you want to go, and it is up to you, you write your heart, and you write your visit, this is the only way to put down the walls and to build bridges and to bring people together.

What does spiritual diplomacy mean for you, and what will you be doing here, with friends, toward that end?

I told you I am not here on a formal visit, and I am not representing anybody here, but I am Sudanese, and I am somebody who can also have some effect on my country, and my relationship with people here on this side of faith can benefit both our countries and both our nations. I can see it could be the easiest and the swiftest way in getting to the hearts of people, if you speak the same language that Jesus could be our guidance, both of us, Muslims and followers of Jesus from this country,

I deem myself a follower of Jesus. According to our beliefs in Islam, if you are not a believer of Jesus, you are not a believer of Mohammed, and if you are not a believer of Mohammed, that means you are out of Islam. So it is part and parcel of our belief in God and Islam that Jesus is also our prophet, and we deem ourselves followers of Jesus, so in that respect we feel we are together. Yes, there are so many differences, as even in Christianity there are so many differences, we have some differences, but what we really share is very big, and we can base on that, and we can bring people on this way of believing in Jesus and believing that his directions and his directives are suitable for Muslims and for Christians. So if that is so, that means we can get closer to each other without remembering that we are different in nations or that we have different political setup. I have seen it.

So many people with whom if I speak politics, we will fall apart. So when we come together on this basis, I think it will be easy for us to get through and open hearts. And by opening hearts we can go through the difficulties also and we can resolve so many issues and outstanding problems.

So the United States plans to take Cuba off of its list of states that sponsor terrorism, which leaves Sudan, Iran, and Syria the only ones left. How would you argue that Sudan, like Cuba, should be taken off of the list?

This is my mission also to your people here, whether on the basis of faith or on the basis of politics, that we really need to focus on the situation of Sudan, and to verify if Sudan is sponsoring terror or not. According to the reports that are issued here in this country and according to those who are interested in this issue and those who are following this issue, I can’t find any report that is accusing Sudan of sponsoring terror, but you know politics.

It is not easy to get through a decision like this, because so many through history have been in this business of putting Sudan in that cage. So it needs time for them to understand, it needs time for them also, there are some NGOs who have been through time benefitting from putting Sudan in that situation. So it will only be possible if we are able to let people understand really the situation of Sudan, and that putting Sudan under that opposition, that means that we are putting Sudan in sanctions, and sanctions are cutting the throats of the needy people in the country. Maybe the government is mainly intended to crack down or to be weakened, but what is now weakened is the population, especially those who are in the peripheries, and especially those who are deemed to be, who need the assistance. So instead of looking to the country and a country under these sanctions should not be helped, I think it is better for those who really adopt the idea of helping others is to look at the matter from this perspective.

Yes it needs time, yes it needs talking to so many, there are so many institutions here in this country, they need to understand and they need also to know the situation better, some of them they know, but you know politics is something that is, nobody can expect how things should go forward and maybe through time, we’ll be able also to go through the same line of Cuba.

So one of the things we’ve been hearing from the UN is that 10% of the Rapid Support Forces’ operations are against the armed opposition, but 90% are against civilians. I’m wondering if you could respond to that.

No, nobody could think of something like that. Why should the government put that heavyweight on the civilians? Why? The government is a government for the people, and if you know the political setup in the country, you will see by yourself how people are represented, from the level of a village to the level of some town and to the level of districts and to the central level of the assemblies and the level of government.

If you have representatives everywhere, then nobody can do anything without those representatives, having idea of that or talking about that. If you go through the media in Sudan, you will find opposition, maybe the majority of papers that are issued in the country to now, they have every right to go anywhere and talk about anything that may be causing atrocities to their home land and people, so if nothing is coming out of that, that means that is only portraying the country in a way that will not at all help somebody like me to convince those who are in charge of a decision like removing Sudan from the list of terror, they want to keep the country there.

But I will bet if anybody is ready to go to the country, we will give him the opportunity to go by himself and assess what is going on there, look for an inquisition that they claim that there are so many rapes in a village in Darfur, you know what was behind that, what was behind that was a message to those people who had been driven from their village to go to the camps, those days they were ready to go back to their village. Why? Because that was one of the villages that was rebuilt again, in a very modern way, with schools, with health care center, with police center, with so many services and water resources, and the message was to them, don’t go back to Tabit, because Tabit is under mass rape, and when it was verified by the UNAMID when they went there, they found nothing of that, because nobody can expect a village like Tabit which had been a home for some hundreds of the soldiers there, they have their homes there, they have their wives there, and they are living in a camp near that place, no one will expect those soldiers will come and rape by hundreds in that village.

So you know messages like this come out of the expectation that the government is trying to normalize the situation, so instead of leaving the government normalize the situation, we just flare up something like this for people not to go back, not only for Tabit people but also for other people who are requesting to go back to their homes. If you are fleeing this place because there is no security, then the police is there, and not only the police is there, but the army is there, and it will protect you against anyone who will infringe your security. And not only that you will have new homes, you will have health services, you will have water resources, and you will have whatever you wish in a village that had been destroyed before 7 or 8 years, so the message was not to us or to you, its to those who should go back to their homes, because they wanted to keep them in the camps, they wanted to keep, the nature of the strife there in the country, that it is still not safe to go back, why for also? There are also some NGOs that are living on collecting money that they want to go to the camps and keep these people there. This is cutting throats of so many, and the line is there, tell the donors here, they should be kept seeing the situation unstable and for them also to pay money also for those who are living on this money.

There’s a report out today about some of the carnage in the Nuba Mountains. There are some really horrible photographs that I wanted to show you, it’s children–I know you’ve seen probably worse, but I know it is all very scarring. This is in a report out of the Nuba Mountains today with lots of children who have allegedly been burned, you can scroll here

Did they tell you who burned them?

My question is, Is it true that this is happening now, with your government planes and artillery, in your country?

Nothing of that is happening. Nobody can make his policy like that. Nobody is targeting his own people. What happens is that, those rebels they get in the villages sometimes, they do it themselves and they send it to you to here, to the media, and for verification I really commend some journalists to go there to verify who is doing this. So many reports are there like this have been sent about Darfur, through five or six years we have been under this kind of media. When people went there from the west and from other countries, they found that these are untrue narratives. You may find somebody who has been, yes, targeted, but who targeted him? This is a story from one side. This is a story from one side.

We have been also noticing, through the last years, heavy attacks put on civilians in South Kordofan and also in North Kordofan, and that had been reported to you here and everywhere. But nobody took it serious. It was those same rebels who attacked the villages and killed so many hundreds at one day and also burned so many houses at the same day and destroyed everything and they looted everything, and they went back to the border of South Sudan and in such a situation, you cannot verify who is doing this. I’m not saying that government is not using artillery, it is using artillery against combatants, it is not using artillery against civilians. There is no reason, why should the government target its own civilians? Nothing of that could happen. Because we have leaders from those leaders, they know what is going on there, they know who is targeting their own civilians there.

What do you do about this?

We just try to verify, and you see a new story again, and for you to verify which is right of these stories, and you know the media, every day you see things, and when you stay for some hours you will find something different. You will find another story. It is better for somebody who is working on this issue to have time to verify, it is easy just to have this story and report it and say this is the government. But why should the government target its own people? And if there is only one bomb that is maybe on an area where rebels are taking that area, something like this could happen.

We are seeing so many causalities happening from bombings some areas in Afghanistan, with really modern technologies, but nevertheless there casualties. I’m not saying that we do not have this in our country. But if it happens then that matter will be under investigation and they will know what had been wrong. But I assure you the government will not at all target its own civilians. So if you have causalities like what is happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even in Iraq, at some point of time, something like this could happen. I’m not in a position now to tell you who did this, but you are a reporter, somebody who is interested in this, you should verify these narratives.

So, we are in a setting right now where there are a lot of international aid groups, especially groups of different faith backgrounds, groups that want to do international aid in Sudan, or have been doing aid work in different regions in Sudan for some time, and I’m wondering, how do you counsel them about how they can help, when there are situations like even this week, Médecins Sans Frontières, their hospital was bombed for the second time, and they say it was the government. In South Kordofan. They’ve been pushed out, they had to leave, and they say this government bombing. So when you are in a setting like this, how do you work with international–

Look we cannot open our doors for an NGO, or anybody, and receive him, give him facilities, and then we bomb him. Can you think, for yourself now, can that be possible if there is no other story which has not been told to you?

The reason I ask these questions is–you can respond and then we can share your voice about that.

When somebody applies to come to Sudan and work, for those needy people the government will make its own assessment and it will open doors for whoever is ready to go there. And there are instructions about how you do your work, and which place, and how you do it, and the custody of whom, so if somebody is coming through the government and he is trying to outlean and deal with the rebels, than he is doing wrong. You will not be told that he is doing something wrong, and for this reason, he had been there at the territory of the rebels. So you need to verify, why should the government target somebody who has been allowed formally and legally to come to the country and work with those people who are in need.

So nothing of that could happen. There should be a missing story, and what is really meant to be missing for you just to portray that the government is bombing this or that. So I would hope if you have time, and even if it is not you, your people, who are in charge of this, would allot somebody or some two or three of you, to go and investigate on that. If they are really interested to know the fact, they will know the facts.

What is the missing story?

I don’t know if this is the missing story. But I would think that there is something wrong that happened that took them from the place where they were authorized to work to another place where they were not authorized to work. Because if you are coming through my doors, and you are going to work with the rebels, that means you are doing something different. And if you are crossing South Sudan borders just to work with the rebels, then you don’t have any security. That means you are working in an area that is targeted. So if you are coming from south Sudan without the authority knowing that you are there and without any permission, that means that you are putting yourself in that jeopardized way.

Could you tell me how your government is getting gold, and are there any areas that consumers should be concerned about where the gold is coming from?

The gold is coming from the country and it is authorized by the government and there are so many companies they come there, they apply for permission, they apply for concessions, and they have agreements on that. And this is one side of it. The other side is, there are some, maybe thousands of Sudanese who used to have the local way of collecting gold from the surface of the ground. So most of them, they have agreement with the government and through that the government is using this gold as Sudanese export, and all of it is legal, nothing is illegal. Nothing is illegal. Nothing is falsified from anybody. Nobody is forced to even sell to the government if he doesn’t want to sell to the government. Nobody is forced to give his land to the government and to do something that is illegal.

So instead of listening to stories like this, it is also good to go there. We have a mining ministry, and you can see the concessions, you can see the companies, you can visit areas where the companies, even the normal citizens in a very traditional way collecting gold from the surface of the ground. They are living their life, nobody is forcing them to do anything. So it is also good to go there and see by yourself.

Earlier this week, there was some news about a tentative peace agreement with South Sudan president Salva Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar. I’m wondering, do you pledge to support that peace agreement, and would Khartoum back a power-sharing agreement in South Sudan?

We have been behind that. We have been trying our best to bring them together, but unfortunately, agreements, this may be the fifth agreement that has been signed, but nobody is abiding by the agreement. The agreements did not hold. You know they have their differences. They still think it is best to go to the jungle and fight. Unfortunately. This is what I see everyday. So people are working from everywhere especially the region, and we are very active in that, and unfortunately we were not able to get to an agreement through the last five days when we were there in Addis Ababa.

If this latest agreement though, would you support an international arms embargo on all parties?

No. I don’t think it is wise now. Because we know the situation in South Sudan. If you have such forces, they may fight everywhere and they will not know who is their enemy. In the region, we do not support something like this. We are part of the region and we know how this will spoil the situation.

In know you have been alluding to this, and we have been talking about this some in previous questions, but as you said one of the main conversation points here about what is happening in Sudan is, is it an insurgency or are there war crimes happening? Which is it? What is the Sudanese government doing? Where do you draw those lines?

Good, it is good that you asked me that. You know what the government is doing in Sudan, but you did not ask me about anything positive in the country. You only asked me about the media, what is projecting into you here in the west. You did not ask me about how we opened our door for South Sudan to secede by an agreement. And that was fully backed up by the whole nation, that if the South Sudanese want to secede, they are free do to that. And by an agreement we did that. You did not ask me about the 450,000 who fled South Sudan again to come again to Sudan. We opened our doors, our hearts, and everything for them. We fed them, we gave them lodging, we gave them health care, and we opened our schools and even universities for them to go there, for free. You did not ask me about the endeavors of the government is doing to transform the lives of the people there, although they are under sanctions. You did not ask me about the elections, we are about to hold during two or three months. You did not ask me about anything that is positive in the country. Shall I have another time to talk about this?

Minister, with these questions, I am giving you the opportunity to tell that side of the story.

I am more than ready to go on that another time if you have time. Maybe the ambassador will also arrange for something for you to come, or for me also, to come to you again and speak on that.

I have time, but if you do not want to do it now that is your choice.

No, it is not that I don’t want to do it. The problem is that we have another appointment.

TIME Sudan

Sudanese Government Denies Mass Military Rape

A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.
Abd Raouf—AP A woman rides a donkey past a convoy of government troops in Tabit village in the North Darfur region of Sudan, Nov, 2014.

A Human Rights Watch investigation released at the United Nations on Wednesday reports that Sudanese army troops raped at least 221 women and girls during a 36-hour attack on the Darfur town of Tabit that began on Oct. 30.

The report documents 27 first-hand reports of rape, 194 other credible accounts of rape and even confessions of two soldiers who had participated in the attacks that superior officers ordered them to “rape women.” Sudanese authorities then launched a cover-up, Human Rights Watch details, which included detaining and torturing Tabit residents for telling the truth about what happened.

Sudan Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti categorically denied reports of a mass military rape in Tabit during an interview with TIME on Feb. 4, when he was in Washington as a guest of the National Prayer Breakfast.

TIME asked him about reports that his government’s armed forces are primarily targeting civilians and not combatants. Any claims of rape in Tabit, he claimed, are lies invented to keep people in refugee camps, where NGOs can make money. Tabit has been rebuilt, he said, with modern schools, health care and police centers.

“Nobody can expect a village like Tabit which had been a home for some hundreds of the soldiers there, they have their homes there, they have their wives there, and they are living in a camp near that place, no one will expect those soldiers will come and rape by hundreds in that village,” Karti said. “Not only the police is there, but the army is there, and it will protect you against anyone who will infringe your security.”

If NGO donors see the situation in the villages as unstable, Karti added, they will keep donating. “This is cutting throats of so many,” he said.

Media in Sudan, Karti continued, “have every right to go anywhere and talk about anything that may be causing atrocities to their homeland and people, so if nothing is coming out of that, that means that is only portraying the country in a way that will not at all help somebody like me to convince those who are in charge of a decision like removing Sudan from the list of terror.”

Sudan is one of three countries on the United States’ list of states that support terrorism, alongside Syria and Iran. Karti and the Sudanese government have been lobbying Washington to get Sudan removed from the list.

Sexual violence has historically been used as a weapon of war in the region—mass rapes were common in the Darfur massacre starting in 2003 and before that in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Special Prosecutor for Crimes in Darfur Yasir Ahmed Mohamed and his team talk to women during an investigation into allegations of mass rape in the village of Tabit, in North Darfur, Nov. 20, 2014.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah—ReutersSpecial Prosecutor for Crimes in Darfur Yasir Ahmed Mohamed and his team talk to women during an investigation into allegations of mass rape in the village of Tabit, in North Darfur, Nov. 20, 2014.

Until Wednesday’s Human Rights Watch report, international observers had not been able to adequately investigate what happened in Tabit. The African Union United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) failed to find evidence that the rapes happened at all when they were allowed to visit Tabit for a few hours on Nov. 9—government forces prevented peacekeepers from carrying out a credible investigation, Human Rights Watch and other activists explain, and days later Sudan shut the UNAMID’s human rights office in Khartoum before expelling two senior UN officials from the country altogether. The special prosecutor for crimes in Darfur, appointed by the Sudanese government, who visited Tabit on Nov. 20, also concluded that no crimes had been committed.

The details of the Human Rights Watch report are damning. Throughout the town, the report says, the pattern of the attacks was similar: armed and uniformed Sudanese military personnel went house to house, beating the men, and then raping women and girls, sometimes mothers with daughters and sisters with sisters. Survivors, including these two below, shared their stories with Human Rights Watch:

“Khadamallah, in her mid-teens, said that soldiers came to her home at about 10 p.m. on Friday night: ‘I was in the house with my younger siblings. We were sleeping when the soldiers came into our house. … They entered the house. I took firewood and hit one of them. One of them dragged me out of the room. … They raped me. … Two of them held me down while the other one raped me. Many others who were there were standing around. … And then they brought me back [to my room], tied me [to the bed], and left.'”

“Mahassan, in her twenties, said that she and three friends were raped by soldiers after sunset. They were in her home preparing perfumes for a wedding when about 10 soldiers entered the compound, dragged the women outside, and raped each of them multiple times: ‘[The soldiers] said that they were looking for a missing soldier. … They searched the compound. … [T]hen they came towards us. They grabbed me and they grabbed my friend. The other soldiers took the other girls in a different direction. They took [me and my friend outside of the compound] towards the school. They raped both of us on the street. … Three of them raped me and three of them raped my friend. … They raped us all night. That’s why I’m still sick. I cannot sit down for a long time like I could before.'”

The full Human Rights Watch report is available here.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 21

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China’s scramble to lock up resources in Africa has forced it to act more like a conventional superpower.

By Richard Javad Heydarian in Medium

2. Adaptive learning technology can give educators tools to keep kids who learn differently from falling through the cracks.

By Susan D’Auria and Ashley Mucha at Knewton

3. 2015 might be the year America starts to get online identity right.

By Alex Howard in Tech Republic

4. Changing a long-standing rule prohibiting sororities from hosting parties could reverse the power imbalance that underlies campus sexual assault.

By Michael Kimmel in Time

5. Ominous headlines notwithstanding, offline fraud and scams are still more costly to individuals and the government than cybercrime.

By Benjamin Dean in the Conversation

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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