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Rights activists urge Obama to prevent Sudan leader's U.N. visit

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses a crowd in North Khartoum, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses a crowd in North Khartoum, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Hollywood actors George Clooney, Don Cheadle and Mia Farrow and other human rights activists on Thursday urged U.S. President Barack Obama to do everything in his power to prevent Sudan's indicted president from attending the U.N. General Assembly.

World leaders gather in New York next week for the opening of the 193-nation assembly's annual general debate. Khartoum has said Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected genocide and other war crimes in Sudan's western Darfur region, wants to attend.

Washington says it has received Bashir's visa application and described the request as "deplorable." However, the United States is not a member of the Hague-based ICC, so the court would not be legally bound to cooperate. The United States also has a special agreement that allows leaders of U.N. member states to attend the General Assembly.

The idea of war criminal indictee attending the General Assembly sparked outrage among human rights activists.

"Our immigration laws prohibit admitting perpetrators of genocide and extrajudicial killings into our country, and it is unprecedented for someone wanted by the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide to travel to the United States," said the letter, which was signed by more than 20 activists.

"While we recognize that the U.S. government is obliged to facilitate President Bashir's visit under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement, we urge you to do everything in your power to prevent the trip," it said.

The text of the letter was made public by the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group whose co-founder John Prendergast, a former U.S. State Department official, is among the signatories.

Sudan dismisses the ICC charges and says reports of mass killings in Darfur were exaggerated. It refuses to recognize the court, which it says is part of a Western plot against it.

Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

A trip to the United States could be risky for Bashir, who has limited his travel mostly to African neighbors and Arab allies since the court ordered member countries in 2009 and 2010 to detain him if he entered their territories.

Several U.N. diplomats told Reuters they were surprised by Bashir's request to come to the United States. One Latin American ambassador said it was a "travesty of international justice." The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not have an immediate reaction to the letter to Obama.

The activists said the U.S. Justice Department should explore the possibility of a criminal case against Bashir under U.S. law, which allows for anyone on U.S. soil to be prosecuted for genocide, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

They also suggested that the United States offer Bashir only minimal protection required under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement, a 1947 pact between the U.S. government and the United Nations, and urge states to deny landing rights for Bashir's plane.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington on Thursday that "there are a variety of considerations in play with respect to President Bashir's visa request, including the outstanding warrant for his arrest." She did not provide details.

Mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms in Darfur in 2003 against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, complaining of neglect and discrimination.

The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in 2003, but Khartoum rejects that figure.

It would not be the first time a controversial figure who displeased the U.S. government appeared at the U.N. General Assembly session. In 1974, Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, addressed the General Assembly wearing a holster and denounced Zionism.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro blasted U.S. imperialism in a four-hour speech to the General Assembly in 1960. Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the United States and Israel in recent years, once suggesting that the U.S. government may have orchestrated the September 11, 2001, attacks.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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