Appeals judges ordered the International Criminal Court on Wednesday to reconsider its decision not to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide in Darfur.
The ruling could pave the way for al-Bashir to be indicted with humanity's worst crime - attempting to wipe out entire ethnic groups in the war-ravaged province.
"Today's ruling is hugely significant as it could lead to the inclusion of charges of genocide by ICC judges for a sitting head of state and for the first time in the history of the court," said William R. Pace, Convenor of the Coalition for the ICC, a nongovernment group that supports the court.
The five-judge appeals chamber said the International Criminal Court was wrong to conclude in March that there was insufficient evidence to merit charging al-Bashir with three genocide counts. Instead, the court charged him with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture, rape and forced expulsions in Darfur province.
The standard of proof the court sought for genocide charges "was higher and more demanding than what is required" in its statutes, appellate judge Erkki Kourula of Finland said Wednesday.
Al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state indicted by the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, refuses to recognize the court's jurisdiction and has vowed never to surrender.
His indictment in March further isolated his hardline regime. Since the charges were issued, he has traveled to friendly countries, but called off trips to nations where he fears he could be arrested and sent to The Hague.
His government expelled 13 of the most important international aid agencies working in Darfur in response to the charges, further compounding the humanitarian crisis in a region where 300,000 people have died since fighting broke out in 2003 between the government and rebels. The United Nations says 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said that decision bolsters his genocide case.
"For me, the fact that President Bashir expelled the humanitarian organizations is confirming that his intention is the physical destruction of these people," he told The Associated Press.
Moreno Ocampo accuses al-Bashir of mobilizing the entire Sudanese state apparatus with the aim of destroying a substantial part of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups in Darfur over more than six years.
Prosecutors accuse Sudanese troops and the janjaweed Arab militia they support of murdering civilians and preying on them in refugee camps. Moreno Ocampo said part of the alleged genocide was a campaign of rape to drive women into the desert, where they die of starvation.
Analysts said March's decision was vital in laying the groundwork for potential indictments of other leaders who have been mentioned as possible targets of war crimes investigations as it rejected head of state immunity.