Opposition leaders fear the release of activists was only to calm protests at austerity measures
KHARTOUM - The scenes outside of the notorious Kober Prison were nothing like the capital had seen since the current government came to power 30 years ago.
Thousands of people, some cheering anti-government slogans, waited for their relatives and friends to be released on Sunday after their arrests during January's anti-austerity protests.
Since it was built in 1903 by British colonialists, the prison has held an assortment of Sudanese opposition leaders and been the site of two major uprisings since the 1960s.
But this time the government had invited the protesters who, one by one, greeted the detainees as they came out. Other demonstrators staged a sit-in demanding all prisoners be freed. President Omar al-Bashir, who ordered the releases, said the government was beginning a new era of freedom.
Many families, however, have been left waiting: opposition leaders say at least 300 activists, including the leaders of the two main opposition parties, are still in custody, while rights groups say that those who have been released allege that they were interrogated and denied medicine. Human Rights Watch believes the number still in detention is at least 90.
“We heard the government’s declaration that it was freeing all of the political prisoners,” said a women in her 30s who had come to collect her husband and asked to stay anonymous. “But they freed even less than 80.”
'We heard the government’s declaration that it was freeing all of the political prisoners. But they freed even less than 80'
- Wife of one of the imprisoned protesters
Officials have said the remaining protesters will be released soon. But there are fears that the protesters have been sucked into a government PR stunt, after Salah Gosh, the newly appointed National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) director, said detainees would only be freed when “their parties stop demonstrations and vandalism”.
Fathi Fadul, spokesman for the Communist Party, said: “We, as opposition parties, still doubt that it’s only a trick to deescalate the ongoing protests over the hiking of prices since last January.”
Bread prices double
When southern Sudan seceded in 2011, it took three-quarters of the Sudan's oil revenue with it. This, along with 20 years of US sanctions, has crippled the country’s economy.
In 2013, protests at fuel price hikes turned into broader protests against the government. Dozens of people were killed in the ensuing security crackdown.
When the US lifted the sanctions in October, the International Monetary Fund called on Sudan to float its currency to help bolster its economy. Instead, Sudan devalued its pound and cut wheat subsidies.
In early January, when bread prices doubled overnight, major protests in Khartoum and other parts of the country erupted. Opposition figures, activists and journalists covering the demonstrations were among those arrested.
A Sudanese man working at a Khartoum bakery in January (AFP)
The US and European embassies in Khatroum and international rights groups condemned the crackdown on the protesters and, in recent weeks, urged the Sudanese authorities to release them.
Sudanese analyst Majid Mohamed Ali said the pressure eventually forced the government’s hand.
“The government desired to improve its image in front of the international community by releasing the detainees,” Ali said. “But the opposition has taken the opportunity and drew the attention of the media to the abuses and human rights violations of the government.”
But Obay Ezz Aldeen, a ruling party member, said the decision to release the detainees had come directly from the president and the NISS director to stabilise the country during a difficult period.
“The decision came from our domestic understanding and consideration to the political situation in the country,” Aldeen said. “The government has taken a positive step to change the polarised political atmosphere, so the opposition also needs to do the same and to response positively to that.”
He said that Gosh only needed a bit more time to review the situation and he was confident that the political detainees would be released soon.
'The government has taken a positive step . . . the opposition also needs to do the same and to response positively to that'
- Obay Ezz Aldeen, ruling party member
But opposition leaders remain concerned that the government is only trying to prevent further disruption in the country.
“The government lied to the families and the entire Sudanese people as they don’t release more than a few detainees,” said Fadul, the Communist Party spokesman.
The National Umm Party (NUP), whose leaders were among the freed detainees, released a statement accusing intelligence services of holding the remaining prisoners as political bargaining chips.
'Very old rivals'
Political analyst Hassan Ahmed said that if the government is serious about moving forward into a new era of democracy, then concessions will be necessary from both sides - especially the authorities.
'The two sides needs to start with confidence-building process to create conducive political atmosphere for the reformation'
- Hassan Ahmed, political analyst
He added that Gosh’s comments that detainees would be released only after protests stopped was a step backwards following the positive initial release of prisoners.
“We are seeing very old rivals over 29 years [the opposition and government] and the experience of the opposition with the government commitment to the previous agreements is actually bad,” Ahmed said.
“So this is why the two sides needs to start with confidence-building process to create conducive political atmosphere for the reformation.”
But others are less positive. One man, among those waiting outside Kober Prison earlier this week, said the government may be running out of time. His son has still not been freed.
Sudanese celebrate in Khartoum in April 1985 after the overthrow of Ga’afar Numeri (AFP)
The man, who declined to give his name amid fears for his safety, said he had been among protesters who freed detainees from prison in April 1985 when a popular uprising overthrew then-president Ga’afar Numeri after 16 years in power.
“I’m disappointed my son hasn’t been released, but these songs and chanting have reminded me of the great moments when we broke the walls of the prison and freed the prisoners,” he said.
“I’m proud of this generation and I do feel that they can challenge this regime and bring it down.”