Opposition sues South Africa government to force Putin arrest

South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor shakes hands with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ahead of their bilateral meeting in Pretoria, South Africa Jan. 23, 2023 [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

The ICC warrant to arrest Putin has launched a debate in South Africa which now faces a diplomatic dilemma ahead of the BRICS summit.

South Africa’s leading opposition party said on Tuesday it had taken legal action to force the government to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin if he were to attend a planned summit in the country.

In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Putin – over accusations that Russia unlawfully deported Ukrainian children – who is to visit Cape Town for a Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc meeting in August.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Alliance (DA) party said it launched a court application to ensure the government detains the Russian leader and hands him over to the ICC “should President Putin set foot in South Africa.”

“This pre-emptory court action aims to ensure that South Africa upholds its obligations,” DA shadow justice minister Glynnis Breytenbach said in a statement.

An ICC member, South Africa, which has close diplomatic ties with Moscow, is now in a diplomatic dilemma.

“We will explore various options with regard to how the Rome Statute was domesticated in our country including the option to look at extending customary diplomatic immunity to visiting heads of state in our country,” justice minister Ronald Lamola said in May.

Breytenbach said the DA was seeking a “declaratory order” to avoid a repeat of 2015 when Pretoria failed to arrest then-Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was similarly wanted by the ICC.

South Africa threatened to pull out of the ICC at the time but ended proceedings to do so due to legal barriers.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov on Tuesday declined to say whether Putin will travel to South Africa for the summit.

“Russia will be duly represented,” Peskov said, adding Moscow expected its BRICS partners “not be guided” by “illegitimate decisions” such as the ICC arrest warrant.

The DA’s legal action comes as the government granted diplomatic immunity to officials attending a BRICS foreign ministers meeting this week and the grouping’s heads of state summit in August.

Some read the move as a preparatory step to provide legal cover for Putin’s visit — something Pretoria has denied.

“These immunities do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee of the conference,” South Africa’s foreign affairs department said in a statement.

Their issuing was “standard” procedure for the hosting of international conferences, it said.

South Africa has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it wants to stay neutral and prefers dialogue to end the war.

Earlier this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his country has been under “extraordinary pressure” to pick sides in the  conflict, following accusations it has tilted towards the Kremlin.



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