INTERVIEW-International criminal court head hopes US will join
* Optimistic Sudanese president will be arrested
* Denies accusations court unfairly targets Africa
By Adrian Croft
LONDON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - The president of the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Tuesday he hoped the United States would eventually join the world's first permanent war crimes court, though he said it could take years.
"I am very optimistic and hopeful," South Korean Judge Sang-hyun Song told Reuters in an interview when asked about the prospects for U.S. membership of the Hague-based court.
The United States has snubbed the court since it was set up in 2002, wary of exposing its troops to prosecutions for unpopular wars. But, under President Barack Obama, Washington has started to re-engage with the court.
"When I had a series of meetings with high-ranking Obama administration officials and some leaders of the U.S. Congress their hostile stance has changed 180 degrees," Song said.
"However in terms of political reality over there, you have to have two-thirds of the U.S. senators to approve the Rome Statute (establishing the ICC) so realistically speaking it will take some time," he said.
"I think eventually they will join us ... probably not within the first administration of the present president, but some years later I hope," he said.
Obama's term ends in January 2013.
Song also said he was optimistic that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused by the ICC of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, would one day be arrested.
BROUGHT TO JUSTICE
"I think ... sooner or later he will be brought to justice," he said after speaking at a London meeting to encourage Commonwealth members that have not yet joined the ICC to do so.
Thirty-three of the 54 Commonwealth countries, mostly former British colonies, have so far joined the court. In all, 113 states have ratified the ICC's founding Rome Statute.
Some African leaders say the ICC is obsessed with prosecuting Africans and ignores war criminals on other continents, but Song denied the court unfairly targeted Africa.
"Yes I heard this kind of criticism more than once. That criticism is not ... factually true," he said.
Relations between the African Union and the ICC have been strained by the charges against Bashir, denied by the Sudanese president.
The ICC has so far launched investigations focusing on Darfur, northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.
Song said three of the cases had been referred to the court by their governments, one by the U.N. Security Council and in the Kenyan case, the prosecutor had launched an investigation.
"The ICC has never targeted only African countries," he said.
Akbar Khan, director of the Commonwealth Secretariat's legal division, said delegates at the meeting had told Song that whether or not he believed Africa was being targeted "that is the perception in Africa and you need to overcome this."
Some 20 Commonwealth countries are attending the three-day meeting. About six of them are not members of the ICC while the remainder have ratified the Rome Statute but have not passed domestic implementing legislation, Khan said.
Participants in the meeting include India, one of several large countries, together with China, Russia and the United States, that have not joined the ICC. (Editing by Peter Graff)
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