Where is Omar al-Bashir, the former Sudanese dictator wanted for war crimes?

The former president has been a fugitive from the International Criminal Court since 2009

It is a measure of the degree to which Omar al-Bashir thrives on chaos that after the Kober high-security jail in the Sudanese capital Khartoum was overrun by warring army and militia forces recently, nobody was quite sure initially whether he’d been released or transferred. He was simply gone.

Now 79, the former Sudanese president has been a fugitive from the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2009 when he became the first sitting head of state indicted for genocide for his role as “indirect co-perpetrator” of a vicious war that began six years earlier in its western province, Darfur.

Since then he has delighted in a new role as nemesis of the ICC, whose focus on prosecuting black African leaders he described as “a tool used by colonial powers to recolonise the continent”, calculatedly ratcheting up hostility between the court and the 55-nation African Union.

At one point, he even supported the idea of an independent African regional court to try its own war crimes cases without recourse to the ICC and – as he undoubtedly still sees it – its relentlessly western “neocolonial agenda”. In the end though, all the talk came to nothing.


In the decade between his indictment and April 2019 when Bashir –­ who came to power in a coup in 1989 and ruled Sudan for 30 years ­­­– was ousted in a popular uprising, he became embarrassingly adept at sidestepping detention in ICC member states that should have detained him.

That same taste for outsider status led him to form an alliance of convenience with Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he met for a “summit” in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in November 2017, offering Sudan as a strategic jumping-off point for Russia in Africa.

That never happened. Instead, two years later, he was incarcerated in Kober prison on corruption charges, an indication in retrospect that he’d needed Russian military backing more than Putin ever needed his entrée to politically fragile East Africa.

Despite hopes now of a humanitarian ceasefire, there’s been fierce fighting again in Sudan since April 15th between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of Mohamed Handan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Both men, ironically, served Bashir as trusted aides before helping to topple him four years ago.

It’s precisely this network of old allegiances and enmities that has raised troubling questions not so much about Bashir’s current whereabouts as about where the current conflict may lead him.

Sudan’s army says he’s been moved to Aliaa military hospital under police custody as a result of an RSF assault on the jail which aimed to free its inmates and in all probability its celebrity former president in particular.

Are the troops there protecting him or holding him? Does the RSF want to free him or exploit him in negotiations? Is recrimination or reinstatement uppermost in the air? The answers to these questions are likely a matter of day-to-day expediency, as they would have been for Bashir himself.

As one regional commentator observed at the end of April: “Islamist allies of Bashir have been returning to positions of influence since the October 2021 military coup instigated by both generals. Many in Sudan see the release of Bashir as the logical next step in the reassertion of power by the old guard.”

In such a fraught geopolitical context, it’s not surprising that one unnamed source close to the ICC was quoted as commenting that for as long as it was uncertain where Bashir was held or by whom, that was “very bad for our case”.

While Bashir may today seem very much the yesterday’s man of the Sudan region, his status as an ICC fugitive remains an embarrassment in The Hague. His capacity to remain out of the reach of international justice has made him something of a poster boy for others like him who lampoon the limitations of the court.

Were he to regain any form of power, however illegitimately achieved, it would demonstrate that there is indeed impunity for the most awful of crimes including, in his case, allegations of murder, torture, rape and forcible transfer.

The message for international justice would be even more damaging: that if Omar al-Bashir can retain this amount of regional support and remain this evasive year after year, just think of the havoc – the horror of Ukraine apart – that another fugitive, Vladimir Putin, may be able to wreak.