In a comprehensive interview with Asharq Al Awsat, Mohammed Ali al Mardi, the Sudanese Minister of Justice, discussed the conflict in Darfur and the mounting casualties, as well as human rights violations and the Abuja negotiations.
Al Mardi revealed that disagreements between field commanders and fighters in Darfur delayed the peace negotiations, adding that death sentences had been issued against all military personnel convicted of killings. He attacked UN Security Council resolution 1519 for restricting the movement of the Sudanese army and hampering its efforts to collect weapons and protect its citizens. The Justice Minister also denied genocide was taking place in Darfur and said that the conflict was intertribal and the situation was generally improving.
Following is the interview transcript:
Q: Why have disputes over water and pasture developed into a wider conflict throughout Darfur?
A: It is important to remember that quarrels between cattle owners and farmers in Darfur did not begin in 2002. They go back many years. In the past, every round of conflict would end in reconciliation, based on the tribes’ heritage and customs. Tribal zeal is the single most important factor for the escalation of hostilities.
Q: How did large quantities of arms become available in Darfur?
A: In the past, weapons such as knives, axes and spears were used. In the early 1980s, modern weapons began to pour into Darfur as a result of the wars within Sudan and its neighbors. The Libyan Islamic Corps distributed many weapons amongst Libyan citizens. These arms were not disposed of properly. They were sold to cattle owners who sought to protect their wealth. The same weapons were used in Libya’s conflict with Chad in the Aouzou Strip. With the internal conflict for power in Chad, more weapons poured into Darfur. Arms were also available after the Ethiopian-Eritrean war.
Q: The United States of America and the international community believe genocide is currently taking place in Darfur. What is your reaction to these accusations?
A: Ethnic cleansing is not a relevant term for explaining the situation in Darfur. The conflict is between individuals belonging to the same ethnic group and within the same tribe, Arab or non-Arab. The al Zurayqat and al Maaliya tribes fiercely fought each other at a loss of hundreds of lives and then made peace. Recently, in mid-March, al Khazim and al Hutiyat tribes were reconciled with al Mahiliyah, al Nwanibah and Awlad al Janub (the sons of the south) tribes. Two hundred people died in clashes between the two sides. They were caused by rumors that a girl from the al Nawanibah tribe had sexual relations with a man from the al Hutuyat tribe. Tribal rivalries inflamed the situation and led to the loss of so many human lives. Throughout the history of Darfur, tribes have coexisted, intermarried and shared the resources in the area. Conflicts occur over resources, not as a result of ethnicity or color.
Q: Who are the Janjaweed? There have been many conflicting reports about them in the media.
A: The word is originally a corruption of the expression “Jinn on horses”. It is given to those who plunder and raid.
Q: How correct are reports indicating rape is taking place in the conflict in Darfur?
A: It is important to remember that tribes in Darfur adhere to a strict moral and religious code. It is wrong to say that mass rape is occurring in the province. Individual cases have taken place, I admit. 64 cases of rape were reported in 2005. In the same period in the U.S.A, more than 90 thousand rapes occurred. These are backed by proof while the ones in Darfur are mere accusations.
Q: But cases of rape are investigated and referred to the courts in the US. What has been done in this respect in Darfur?
A: The cases I mentioned were included in a report by the National Committee headed by former Chief Judge Rafallah Haj Youssef. Some of the investigations that were carried out recently have been completed. Those who were charged were put on trial and sentenced.
Q: What about the continuing deaths of thousands of people in Darfur?
A: The conflict is the result of tribal clashes. The Sudanese government believes that, in order to end these feuds and eliminate acrimony amongst tribes, it is necessary to revive the policy of reconciliation. Warring tribes are destined to live in the same geographical area. Our efforts have succeeded in achieving reconciliation in the village of Hamadah, which was attacked by members of the al Zurayqat and al Turjum tribes where the al Barq tribe lives. 126 villagers were killed. The conflict was over resources: water and pasture land. I personally attended the sulh (peace) conference with other civil administration officials from the Darfur province.
Q: What about the fighting between the al Zurayqat and al Barq, which claimed 1,300 lives? How was it resolved?
A: Yes, the Sudanese government continued its efforts to tackle the friction between the two tribes which claimed more than a thousand innocent lives. 780 individuals from the al Barq tribe and 350 from al Zurayqat tribe died. Peace was achieved and the two tribes have been reconciled.
Q: What do you make of the accusations leveled against members of the regular Sudanese army?
A: The crimes committed by regular soldiers or the police are being tried in special courts. To members of the armed forces charged with murder have been sentenced to death recently and their case is not before the Supreme Court. A policeman was also sentenced in a separate case. Let me stress that all those who have committed crimes in Darfur will face justice.
Q: But why do the trials for those charged with murder, rape, arson and the destruction of property take so long?
A: Trials take time. Some are quicker than others are, depending on the circumstances and nature of the crime. Many of the accused also disguise their physical appearance or change their address to avoid being tracked down. We are talking about Darfur, an area larger than France. The Sudanese government will continue its efforts to apprehend all those guilty of crimes. No one will escape punishment.
Q: You have just returned from Darfur. The media continues to report on the deteriorating security situation. What is really going on in the province?
A: The security situation has improved in Darfur. It is better than before. The Sudanese government believes that all the efforts to achieve peace, including meetings, tribal reconciliation and the negotiation in Abuja between the government and a delegation from Darfur will ultimately lead to peace.
Q: What is preventing and delaying the return of peace to the province?
A: The obstacle is that those who carry arms lack the political will to achieve piece. This is due to a disagreement between the major armed movements, the Sudanese Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement, as well as differences between politicians and field commanders. The two groups did not even share the same vision for a solution when they took part in negotiations.
Q: Could the parties in the Abuja negotiations benefit from the previous Nivasha negotiations?
A: An agreement was reached in the Niavasha negotiations because the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Sudan had a unified political and military command and clear vision for a solution. This is lacking in the Abuja negotiations.
Q: What is the Sudanese government’s response to accusations of human rights abuses in Darfur by international organizations?
A: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group have accused us of violating human rights. Their accusations are biased and their information is based on non credible sources. In the case of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it has published reports on attacks on refugee camps in order to prevent them from returning to their homes, so that Darfur continues to attract the interest of the international community and in order to encourage the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudan and send international forces against the government’s wishes.
Q: How does Sudan view the UN General Assembly’s election of a new human rights council?
A: We welcome the new council. We believe it is a positive and practical step in the right direction. The new formation is likely to enable the UN to collect correct information and adopt sound arrangements. The Sudanese government will cooperate fully with it. I will be leading a delegation to the meetings in Geneva and will give a presentation on the situation across the country and Darfur in particular.
Q: What is your stand regarding the OAU extending its mission in Darfur until September 2006?
A: The Sudanese government welcomes the decision. We believe that funds and assistance have been deliberately withheld from the OAU force to that, when it fails, it will replaced by an international force. The government will work with the OAU and friendly governments to provide such assistance. We have reservations on the decision by the African Peace and Security Council to refer the issue to the United Nations. The Sudanese government has said that, if peace is achieved in Darfur, it may consider allowing an international force to ensure calm throughout the province.
Q: Does the Sudanese government imprison political detainees?
A: Ever since the new constitution has come into effect, there are no longer any political detainees in Sudanese prisons. The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary, the protection of women and children and provides safeguards to everyone.
Q: Has the Sudanese government confiscated all illegal weapons in Darfur to prevent deadly clashes?
A: We are making an effort to restrict the use of illegal weapons. But the movement of the army and the police is restricted by the UN Security Council resolution.
Q: What about reports on an international readiness to try those accused of committing crimes in Darfur?
A: The International Criminal Court should take notice of the measures we have adopted in this regard. The ICC must not have any jurisdiction over Darfur as long as we are serious and capable of trying criminals ourselves.
Q: Is the Sudanese government cooperating with the ICC in order to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda and put him to trial?
A: Yes, we have expressed our readiness to cooperate fully in tracking him down.