Until a week ago, few people in South Africa knew about the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which jumped into news feeds when it approached a court asking for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to be arrested while in South Africa.
The group’s action sparked an international stand-off with Sudan, and left South Africa’s international credibility in tatters after al-Bashir was allowed to leave the country.
While some questioned SALC’s motives and others praised its actions, the centre’s executive director, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, insisted on Friday she was not pursuing personal glory.
Ramjathan-Keogh, a veteran human rights lawyer, said that the SALC had first written to several ministries in the justice portfolio in May, when the group got word that al-Bashir might attend the AU Summit, which took place in Johannesburg and Pretoria from June 7 to 15.
“We reminded the government about its commitment and obligation to arrest him and hand him over to the International Criminal Court [ICC],” she said. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president in 2009, accusing him of crimes against humanity and war crimes in association with the Darfur conflict.
As a signatory of the Rome Statute of the ICC, and in terms of its domestic law obligations, South Africa has committed itself to bringing people who are suspected of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.
Ramjathan-Keogh said that because SALC had “full faith” that the South African government “would comply with its obligations”, the group did not act until al-Bashir touched down in the country.
“So we waited until he [al-Bashir] arrived and until there was proof the South African government had not arrested him. We then proceeded with the court proceedings.”
Ramjathan-Keogh said the SALC approached the North Gauteng High Court on Saturday at about 10pm.
“We didn’t anticipate that the state would oppose the application,” she acknowledged. “We expected that the state would come to court and say is was preparing to arrest him, so our application would not need to proceed.”
Ramjathan-Keogh said the SALC would have been pleased with such a stance, and the group did not expect the government to defy the rule of law.
But she said the SALC’s fight to have al-Bashir tried for crimes against humanity was not over.
“It has just started. We don’t anticipate that he will come to South Africa ever again, or go to one of the southern African countries that we operate in,” she said.
The SALC, which has been operating from a small office in Rosebank since 2005, does business in at least 10 countries in the region, including Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
In advocating for and promoting human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa, it is not the first time the SALC has taken on the government. The group has hauled the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) into court to compel it to prosecute the killers of anti-apartheid activist Nokuthula Simelane.
In an application currently before the North Gauteng High Court, the SALC is supporting the Simelane family in a bid to have the NPA either launch an inquest into the disappearance, abduction and torture of Nokuthula in 1983, or to make a decision about whether or not to prosecute.
Simelane was 23-year-old university graduate who acted as a courier for Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, when she was abducted by members of the police’s security branch. Her remains have never been found.
In 1996, a police docket was opened and in 2001 the amnesty committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted some of the perpetrators amnesty for Simelane’s abduction, including police officers who the committee found had lied about her torture. None of the perpetrators applied for amnesty for her murder.