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ICC to open office in Sudan as Darfur trials inch closer

ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan speaking in Darfur   -  
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Sudan and the International Criminal Court signed a cooperation deal Thursday as one step further towards ex-dictator Omar al-Bashir facing trial for genocide in the Darfur conflict.

ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan, who described the Darfur civil war as a "dark chapter" in Sudan's history, said plans were underway for The Hague-based ICC to open an office in Sudan to collect further evidence to "build a solid case".

Bashir, 77, has been wanted by the ICC for more than a decade over charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sudanese region.

Two other former aides are also wanted to face war crimes charges.

The United Nations says 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the Darfur conflict, which erupted in the vast western region in 2003.

Sudan has been led since August 2019 by a transitional civilian-military administration, that has vowed to bring justice to victims of crimes committed under Bashir.

On Thursday, Khan told reporters in Khartoum that he was "pleased to report" the transitional government had signed "a new memorandum of understanding with my office, that includes all individuals against whom warrants of arrest have been issued by the ICC".

Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for three decades before being deposed amid popular protests in 2019, is behind bars in Khartoum's high security Kober prison.

- Slow wheels of justice -

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, later adding genocide to the charges.

Bashir is jailed alongside two other former top officials facing ICC war crimes charges -- ex-defence minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein and Ahmed Haroun, a former governor of South Kordofan.

Earlier this week, Sudan's cabinet agreed to hand over Bashir and other wanted officials, a decision that still needs the approval of the ruling sovereign council, comprised of military and civilian figures.

But on Thursday, Khan said other key steps were needed before any possible extradition for trial.

"Transfer of any suspect is an important step, but should be preceded and accompanied by substantive and ever deepening cooperation," Khan said.

The Darfur war broke out in 2003 when non-Arab rebels took up arms complaining of systematic discrimination by Bashir's Arab-dominated government.

Khartoum responded by unleashing the notorious Janjaweed militia, recruited from among the region's nomadic peoples.

Human rights groups have long accused Bashir and his former aides of using a scorched earth policy, raping, killing, looting and burning villages.

Khartoum signed a peace deal last October with key Darfuri rebel groups, with some of their leaders taking top jobs in government, although violence continues to dog the region.

Bashir was convicted in December 2019 for corruption, and has been on trial in Khartoum since July 2020 for the Islamist-backed 1989 coup which brought him to power. He faces a possible death penalty if found guilty.

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