Bashir and his 26-member delegation were welcomed with traditional dances and an honour guard of Malawi soldiers, even though the southern African nation has a treaty obligation to arrest him over war crimes committed in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.
A foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Malawi would not arrest the Sudanese president.
“Why? He is here as a friend of President Bingu wa Mutharika,” he noted.
Bashir will attend the annual summit of the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), which opens Friday in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
Bashir did not speak to reporters but was rushed to a hotel in downtown Lilongwe.
An aide to Mutharika said it was not the responsibility of the southern African nation to arrest Bashir.
Bashir is the first sitting president indicted by the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Malawi has ratified the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, which obliges the country to arrest him if Bashir enters the country.
But Mutharika said in March that African leaders should not be dragged to The Hague for crimes committed in Africa.
Other leaders expected at the summit are Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Eritrea’s Issaias Afeworki, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, and Swazi King Mswati III.
Despite having an arrest warrant issued against him in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bashir has travelled abroad numerous times.
Bashir often travels to countries that are not party to the ICC, receiving a red-carpet welcome from China, where he made a three-day visit in June.
He has only been to three other countries that have treaty obligations to arrest him, travelling in May to Djibouti and in August to Chad.
Kenya invited him to attend a ceremony in August 2010 for the promulgation of its new constitution, but later acknowledged it had made a mistake and has not welcomed him again.
With each of those three visits, ICC judges informed the UN Security Council and the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute — but that has yet to result in any concrete action regarding his travels.
The decision to welcome Bashir will likely create further diplomatic headaches for Mutharika, who has already seen international aid slashed over worries about his autocratic tendencies.
“Al-Bashir is an international fugitive wanted on charges of heinous crimes — including genocide — committed in Darfur,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior counsel on international justice, Elise Keppler.
“Malawi should arrest him, not host him,” she added.
The UN says at least 300,000 people have died since the uprising in Darfur started in 2003.
“President Mutharika’s public reluctance to back the ICC is unacceptable,” said Marek Marczynski, an international justice campaigner for Amnesty International.
“The authorities have legal obligations to provide real justice for victims of crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law in Darfur, and should not be welcoming international fugitives.”
The COMESA summit is expected to follow up on commitments to create a free trade bloc by joining the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community.
The deal announced last year would create an $875 billion market across 26 countries stretching from Cape Town to Cairo.