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Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has arrived in Cape Town amid a diplomatic storm over whether South Africa will honor an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Mr. Putin is expected to travel to South Africa, a member of the court, in August to attend a summit meeting of BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — with the court’s arrest warrant hanging over his visit. His foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov, is in South Africa this week to prepare for that meeting.
The issue has triggered a public debate over South Africa’s membership in the court, pitting the governing African National Congress’s historical ties with Russia against the country’s economic ties with the United States and Europe.
Mr. Lavrov is fresh off a whirlwind trip around East Africa that included meetings with leaders of Kenya, Burundi and Mozambique as Moscow shores up the support of its allies in Africa. Mr. Lavrov and his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, are expected to discuss the I.C.C. warrant. South Africa must balance its obligations to the court charged with investigating war crimes and the country’s ties with Russia.
Mr. Putin’s expected attendance at the August meeting has become a fraught political issue for South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his government. The international warrant, which cites Mr. Putin’s role in the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, has isolated Mr. Putin, a leader with an aura of impunity.
This week, South Africa’s Foreign Ministry said the summit would be protected by diplomatic immunity. That immunity, however, is “not for specific individuals,” the ministry said.
“These immunities do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee of the conference,” the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, a division of the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
At the same time, South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, approached a high court for a declaratory order on South Africa’s obligation to honor the I.C.C. warrant. The party hopes the court order will leave no ambiguity about whether South African officials are legally bound to detain Mr. Putin and extradite him to The Hague. The party also wants a judge to clarify the process of arresting a sitting president, said Glynnis Breytenbach, a party lawmaker.
The pre-emptive court action would “avoid a repeat of the al-Bashir saga,” Ms. Breytenbach said. In 2015, South African officials failed to enact an I.C.C. warrant and arrest the former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who was in Johannesburg to attend an African Union meeting. A South African court ruled that the government was legally required to arrest Mr. al-Bashir hours after he had left the country.
The court has not set a date for the hearing on Mr. Putin’s visit.
The legal proceedings illustrate the confusion over South Africa’s stance toward Russia. The United States has criticized South Africa over its warm relations with Moscow, while Mr. Ramaphosa said his country was facing enormous pressure to abandon its policy of nonalignment in the face of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
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