Trump Faces Potential Run-In With Sudan's President in Saudi Arabia

Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges including genocide, is due to attend the same meeting as President Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia. Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty (Bashir) Chip Somodevilla/Getty (Trump)

President Donald Trump didn't have the best start to his week, following the ongoing saga of his firing of FBI Director James Comey and a possible intelligence leak to Russia plaguing the White House.

The weekend is unlikely to provide respite for the U.S. president, who could confront a new obstacle during his first foreign trip: an encounter with a suspected war criminal.

Trump will travel to Saudi Arabia and is due to attend a summit in Riyadh that will bring together some 50 leaders of Muslim countries across the world. These will include Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: The country's foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, confirmed on Wednesday that Bashir would be in the Gulf and was looking forward to "normalization of our relations with the U.S.."

It's not clear how much contact the two leaders will have. Michael Anton, spokesman for the National Security Council, told The Guardian : "My understanding was that he would NOT be at the meeting with the president." But a senior member of Bashir's party told CNN that the Sudanese president would "be in the same conference hall" as Trump, though he did not know if they would meet.

Bashir and Trump potentially being seen together is so controversial is because The hitch is that there's an arrest warrant for Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague that's been outstanding since 2009. He is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes connected to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. A PR disaster-in-waiting for Trump.

"The concern is [that] any kind of meeting, handshake or photo-op between President Trump and President Bashir will send a dreadful signal to victims in Darfur and victims of crimes worldwide," says Richard Dicker, the director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. (Ghandour, Sudan's foreign minister, when asked whether Bashir and Trump would shake hands said: "I don't have dreams but I have hopes, and I hope they will be materialized.")

Read more: "Why does Trump hate us?" A Sudanese airport worker lives in limbo over Trump's travel ban

The U.S. Congress unanimously declared the conflict in Darfur, which began in 2003 and continues to the present, a genocide in 2004 under former President George W. Bush. The conflict has pitted Sudanese government forces and pro-government Arab militias against black African rebel groups, who accuse the government of marginalizing Darfur's non-Arab population. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict and 2 million remain displaced; the Sudanese government claims the toll is much lower.

Despite signing the Rome Statute in 2000, the United States has never ratified the ICC's founding document. But Washington still has a long history of cooperating with the ICC in bringing its suspects to justice, says Phil Clark, an expert on the court at SOAS University of London. In 2013, the U.S. facilitated the transfer of Bosco Ntaganda, suspected of war crimes in Congo, to The Hague; in 2015, U.S. forces in Central African Republic arrested Dominic Ongwen, a key leader of the Lord's Resistance Army who is currently on trial at the ICC. The United States is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which in 2005 referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC's jurisdiction and urged all parties to cooperate with the court, although the U.S. actually abstained from voting on that particular resolution.

"There is a reasonable expectation that a U.S. president would say something about an ICC suspect traveling to an international summit," says Clark. "So the fact that Trump hasn't done that in the case of Bashir and is likely to be around the same table as him shows there's a change in the air."

For its part, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, has reiterated its opposition to Bashir attending the summit. "We oppose invitations, facilitation, or support for travel by any person subject to outstanding ICC arrest warrants, including President Bashir," the Embassy said on Wednesday. It also reiterated that the U.S. continues to classify Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, one of just three countries —along with Iran and Syria—that hold that ignonimous title.

Trump has hardly endeared himself to Sudan; the U.S. president listed the country as one of six majority-Muslim states from which immigration to America was banned in a March executive order, currently stayed by U.S. courts. Sudan's foreign ministry expressed its "deep regret and discontent" at the ban, lamenting that Sudanese citizens in the U.S. "have never been involved in any crimes or terrorism."

But with Trump looking set to go to Saudi Arabia and a potential encounter with Bashir, advocates for the Sudanese leader's arrest are not hopeful that the U.S. president himself will speak up. Bill Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a network of 2,500 nongovernmental organizations campaigning for respecting the ICC's jurisdiction, says that while the ideal response would be for Trump and others attending the summit to threaten to assist with Bashir's arrest and transfer to The Hague, he is not expecting that to happen. "We have very little confidence that the Trump administration will be a defender of the rule of law, especially at the international level," says Pace.