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Sudan: Scores of protesters tried in emergency courts as Bashir cedes party leadership

Protesters say emergency courts being used to pressure them to stop anti-government demonstrations
Sudanese protester covers his face from tear gas in Burri district of Khartoum, 24 February (AFP)
By Mohammed Amin in Khartoum, Sudan

Thousands of protesters continued to demonstrate across Sudan after midday prayers on Friday despite an apparent concession from President Omar al-Bashir, who handed the leadership of the country's ruling party to his deputy.

The rallies, which spread to residential areas of Khartoum, far from the city centre, followed the overnight trials of more than 800 protesters in three separate emergency courts, established when Bashir imposed a year-long state of emergency last week.

Another 250 protesters are expected to be tried on Sunday.

Protests over economic hardships and rising living costs under Bashir's government have rocked Sudan since mid-December.

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But the rallies have continued, with protesters rejecting the new emergency laws and continuing to shout anti-Bashir slogans on Friday.

Early in the day, Bashir delegated his post as head of the ruling party to his deputy, Ahmed Harun, in another attempt to quell the ongoing protests against his 29-year rule.

A Sudanese political analyst told Middle East Eye that Bashir's latest gesture is unlikely to stem public rage because many Sudanese see it as little more than political maneuvering disguised as reform.

"He delegated his power to his deputy and that means he can return at any moment," said the Khartoum-based analyst, who spoke to MEE by phone on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The analyst said pressure from the protesters pushed Bashir to suspend constitutional amendments that would have allowed him to stay in power beyond set term limits and to assure the public that he wouldn't nominate himself to run for re-election in 2020.

But those assurances aren't set in stone either, the analyst said, and "the doors are also open here for a reversal".

'Only one demand'

A Sudanese demonstrator, speaking to MEE from the protest on Friday, said the protesters won't let the recently enacted emergency laws stop them. "They have only one demand [and] that is for President Bashir to leave. So they won't leave the streets and the protests," he said.

Many of the chants heard during the protests on Friday mocked the emergency laws, the protester said. "They even chanted against the wife of the president, the corruption of the officials and against the emergency laws itself," he told MEE.

Despite this resolve, relatives of the hundreds of demonstrators who were pushed through swift trials in emergency courts on Thursday night were still reeling as the rallies raged on Friday.

The Democratic Alliance of Lawyers, an opposition group, said the courts were unconstitutional, and it accused the Sudanese government of using them to suppress the protests.

According to the alliance, about 870 protesters were arrested and immediately tried in three courts in Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri.

My brother has sentenced to two weeks in jail without having the chance to defend himself or delegate a lawyer to defend him

- Yassmin, Sudanese protester

One of them was a relative of Yassmin, a protester who spoke to MEE on the condition that her last name not be used amid safety concerns.

"My brother has been sentenced to two weeks in jail without having the chance to defend himself or delegate a lawyer to defend him. Everything was finished quickly," she said.

"We are very concerned with what is happening to our brother, but we are clear that these courts are being used by the regime to scare the protesters."

Khartoum-based lawyer Noon Kashkoosh told MEE that at least 10 protesters were sentenced to between two weeks and five years in prison on Thursday evening, while hundreds of others were released for lack of evidence.

"The verdicts in Omdurman court ranged between two weeks and one month, but [in] the court of Khartoum ... around six protesters have been [sentenced to] between three to five years in prison," she said.

A representative from the Democratic Alliance of Lawyers, who spoke on condition of anonymity over security concerns, told MEE that the group is preparing to submit a lawsuit in Sudan's constitutional court in the coming days in protest against the state of emergency.

"These laws are being used as a tool against our people, so we will challenge them by all legal means," the representative said, adding that Bashir's decision to declare a state of emergency was "unconstitutional".

"The president has no right to declare a state of emergency unless he gets the approval of the parliament within 15 days," the representative said.

In statement on Thursday night, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), an umbrella group that has been at the forefront of the anti-government protests, also reiterated its rejection of the laws, calling on protesters to continue resisting them.

"Nothing can stop us from reaching our goals," the group's statement said. "We feel that the distance now has become shorter to achieve the dream of bringing down the dictator, so we shall continue together what we started three months ago."

Government defends emergency laws

The Sudanese authorities have maintained that the emergency laws are being used to stem chaos in the country's markets and maintain security.

Last week, Vice President Awad Ibn Oaf told reporters in Khartoum he rejected claims that the laws were being used against protesters, as reported by local media and Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency.

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The ruling party has also said that the decision to hand its leadership from Bashir to Harun is an attempt to stabilise the country.

The decision may also allow the president to focus on the needs of the nation, rather than party politics, the party said.

After a leadership meeting on Friday morning, Harun said that the party is ready to launch a dialogue among a wide spectrum of political parties and armed movements across Sudan.

Harun has held various leadership positions in recent years, including as governor of both North and South Kordofan, Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, and minister of state in the country's Ministry of Interior.

He was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2007 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Bashir was also indicted by the ICC in 2009 for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the war-torn region.

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