JIM LEHRER: Now, the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. Last March, he was indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Last week, he was interviewed in the capital of Khartoum. That interview was a collaboration between the NewsHour and Time magazine.
NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks narrates our report.
SIMON MARKS: He is one of the world’s most-wanted men. The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, risks arrest by order of the International Criminal Court based in the Hague if he travels outside his own country’s borders.
But in Khartoum last week, he told Time magazine’s Sam Dealey the restrictions on his movement are no big deal.
OMAR AL-BASHIR, president, Sudan: Up until now, I haven’t felt restrictions on my movement. I am not a minister of foreign affairs where I am supposed to travel frequently to other countries, conferences and meetings. A president has his deputies, assistants, and his specialized ministers, so it’s not necessary for a president to travel to every country. But I have made all necessary travels.
SIMON MARKS: In fact, as soon as he made history, becoming the first sitting president of a country to face an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, he hit the road.
He’s visited friendly countries, including Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, participated in the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, and attended an Arab League summit in Qatar.
Last month, the African Union declared its member states would not enforce the ICC’s arrest warrant.
The charges President al-Bashir faces — war crimes and crimes against humanity — relate to atrocities committed in the Sudanese region of Darfur over the last six years. There, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations estimate more than a quarter of a million people have died and at least 2.5 million have been displaced in a conflict that pits predominantly African rebel groups against the Arab-dominated government and its allied militias.
President al-Bashir told us he rejects the numbers.
SAM DEALEY, Time correspondent: Do you still maintain that only 10,000 have died in Darfur?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): This is what we believe the number to be, according to all the events that have taken place in Darfur.
SIMON MARKS: And he also rejects the International Criminal Court itself, which was founded by international statute in 2002.
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): The International Criminal Court is a political court, not a court of justice.
SAM DEALEY: So you believe the ICC is an illegitimate organization?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): We think that the ICC is a tool to terrorize countries that the West thinks are disobedient. The African position today, by consensus, is not to cooperate with this court, and it has reached a conclusion that this court is directed against the countries of the third world and a tool of neocolonialism.
Absolute government control
SIMON MARKS: As soon as visitors to Khartoum drive out of the airport, they are now greeted by posters lauding the achievements of President al-Bashir in three different languages and lambasting the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has built the case against the Sudanese leader.
That case claims that, as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy, in substantial part, three ethnic groups in Darfur. It alleges he personally directed a campaign of rape, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible displacement. He's accused of being in full control of all branches of the apparatus of Sudan's government. Control, the prosecutor concludes, was not only formal; it was absolute.
The president proffers a different view.
SAM DEALEY: To what degree do you control the apparatus of the government?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): There is a wide delegation of powers. It is not possible for a president in a country like Sudan, the size of Sudan, with the immense problems of Sudan, to administer and manage everything.
For example, the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan mistakenly bombed a wedding and killed 147 civilians. But you can't say that the U.S. president should be tried for this because he is the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces. In the U.S., not even the chiefs of staff would be put on trial.
But if it was proven that the field commander that ordered this operation made this decision without confirming whether this was a gathering of civilians or combatants, then he is the one to be held responsible, and the law is clear on this. The law holds accountable those who break it, and we've conducted trials.
SAM DEALEY: How many cases have been prosecuted?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): I don't recall exactly, but I do recall that we stripped the immunity from one member of the national security forces. He was put on trial, was convicted and executed. There are a number of other examples that I do not recall at the moment, because the trials take place there, on the ground.
SIMON MARKS: The Sudanese government has long blamed the crisis in Darfur on fractious rebel groups with divergent aims and ambitions, backed by some of the country's regional opponents. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court accuse President al-Bashir of concealing his crimes by diverting blame.
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): A rebellion happened there, from a small group, and any attempt to picture the militants as representatives of the people of Darfur is a big mistake. You will find in all the world's countries that militants who take up arms against a government are classified as "terrorists." Even those who resist occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are classified today as "terrorists," except in Sudan. When some people take up arms, it's the government that's guilty.
Worst of the violence has ended
SAM DEALEY: So there were no actions specifically, though, which you feel, in retrospect, were mistakes?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): In any war, mistakes happen on the ground. This is not the policy of the government. We are a government that functions in accordance with the law. The security apparatus functions in accordance with the law. Whoever intentionally breaks the law is held accountable to it.
SAM DEALEY: Have you ever met Mr. Obama or spoken to him?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: No, no. No.
SIMON MARKS: President al-Bashir's decision to grant a high-profile U.S. media interview -- his first since he was indicted -- comes as the Obama administration is reassessing a comprehensive range of punitive measures in place against his government.
The U.S., which under the Bush administration branded the crisis in Darfur a genocide, now says the worst of the violence there has ended. Major General Scott Gration is President Obama's special envoy to Sudan.
MAJ. GEN. SCOTT GRATION (Ret.), U.S. special envoy to Sudan: There's a significant difference between what happened in 2004 and 2003, which we characterize as genocide, and what is happening today. We are working very hard to make sure that we can close the gap, though, and end that violence.
SIMON MARKS: Citing Sudan's progress, Major General Gration also said he didn't believe the country should remain on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it's been since 1993. He spoke of a golden opportunity to work with Sudan in the fight against terrorism and hinted that even the big prize -- lifting a decade of economic sanctions -- could be on the table.
MAJ. GEN. SCOTT GRATION: At some point, we're going to have to unwind some of these sanctions so that we can do the very things we need to do to ensure a peaceful transition.
SIMON MARKS: That enraged activists in the U.S. and some figures within the Obama administration, who argue that the violence in Darfur should trump any cooperation that the Sudanese government offers in the global battle against terrorism.
President al-Bashir claims, after his government signed a January 2005 peace agreement that ended nearly four decades of brutal war in the non-Arab south of Sudan, it was U.S. activists who derailed a previous offer to improve relations from the Bush administration.
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): We think there are pressure groups in the United States that are stronger than the government's obligations. After we signed the peace agreement in Abuja, I received a telephone call from President Bush personally, and he spoke with great admiration and appreciation about what had been achieved and said that the United States was now ready to interact in a spirit of openness with Sudan. But, of course, he couldn't continue along those lines.
Normalized international relations
SAM DEALEY: You feel that the responsibility then -- that the failure to follow through on those promises was entirely due to the weakness of the United States government? Were there any actions by the Sudanese government that contributed to that, as well?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): We were asked to sign a peace agreement to have the punishments removed. We signed, and they have not been removed.
We think that the most recent special envoy's efforts, General Gration, and the new direction the U.S. administration is taking to change the policies of the previous administration, with the complete cooperation between us and the U.S. special envoy, we will normalize relations with the U.S.
SIMON MARKS: With only dim prospects for his immediate arrest and appearance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, President al-Bashir faces a more immediate trial in Sudan itself. National elections are due to be held next April. If he stands, the president will be seeking a third decade in power.
On the streets of Khartoum last week, Time magazine's Sam Dealey found contrasting views on that. Mahmouda Sammahin works for a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the advancement of women in Sudan.
MAHMOUDA SAMMAHIN, Women's Rights Activist: I feel strongly that people are much less supportive of the government. I think they are trying to find a way, they are looking forward to the elections next year, 2010, and that's the only hope they have now.
SIMON MARKS: Supporters of President al-Bashir praise him for overseeing the rapid development of the country's oil-based economy. Even while sanctions keep American companies out, businesses from China, Russia and the Gulf States have been moving in.
So jeweler Osman Yousef is an enthusiastic supporter of President al-Bashir.
OSMAN AL-FAKI YOUSEF, Jeweler (through translator): The situation has improved greatly. There's development everywhere. Even in my home area, there's been great improvement. A new sugar plant has been built where I live, and irrigation projects have been completed that are helping with that project.
SIMON MARKS: While the people of Sudan debate his merits, the country's president is now offering his strongest hint yet that his time in power may be coming to an end.
SAM DEALEY: Did you ever consider not standing for the presidency again?
OMAR AL-BASHIR (through translator): We thought that, after signing the peace agreement in South Sudan, that this was an achievement one could end their political life with.
Four years ago, I urged the party to elect a new president because we cannot present to the Sudanese people a president who has been in power for 20 years, because the Sudanese people would be naturally bored.
Political work in Sudan, as I see it, is not a comfortable task. It is tiring, exhausting, and with great responsibilities. I used to tell some presidents whose time in office had ended that the best thing is to be a former president, someone who is respected, appreciated, and without any responsibilities.
SIMON MARKS: The International Criminal Court argues that, in power or out of it, President al-Bashir must eventually face up to his responsibilities and should not be permitted to live out his retirement comfortably in Khartoum.
A man who has continually beaten long odds during the past 20 years exudes confidence that he can be victorious in what may be his final geopolitical battle.
JIM LEHRER: A transcript of the interview with President al-Bashir is available on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org, along with a podcast interview with the president of the Save Darfur Coalition.