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A PERMANENT and enigmatic smile plays on the lips of Omar al Bashir. At least it does in the portraits of him which bear down on the streets of Khartoum. The billboards carry rousing slogans, The man of our epoch, Al Bashir, symbol of national pride and dignity or A leader who is targeted for his successes. In person, the smile is there, too. The military dictator may be a pariah who could, in theory, be bundled away in handcuffs at any moment and put on trial, charged with masterminding acts of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale in Darfur. But for a wanted man, he looks relaxed, grinning and nodding as a delegation of British Muslims, led by former Labour peer and would-be peace broker Lord Nizar Ahmed, prods him about his decision to expel the leading international charities from Darfur.
Bashir, a former army general who seized power in Sudan in a 1989 coup, installing an Islamist regime, was indicted on seven counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity in March. But if he lies awake at night, either because his conscience is troubling him or because he fears a jail cell in The Hague awaits him, it does not show. He moves freely about the capital, attending his favourite mosque on Fridays with little or no visible security, according to one worshipper who prayed near him last week.
At his presidential palace on the banks of the Blue Nile, where General Gordon met his end in 1885, speared to death on the staircase, security is low key. There are no airport-style scanning machines. You are asked politely to leave your bag or any recording equipment in a reception room before being …