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US lifts Sudan sanctions despite opposition from human rights groups

Sudan sends assurances it will not pursue deals with North Korea and distances itself diplomatically from Iran
People gather recently to welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in war-torn Darfur region (Reuters)

The United States lifted long-standing sanctions against Sudan on Friday, saying it had made progress fighting terrorism and easing humanitarian distress, and also secured Khartoum's commitment not to pursue arms deals with North Korea.

In a move that completes a process begun by former President Barack Obama and that was opposed by human rights groups, President Donald Trump removed a US trade embargo and other penalties that had effectively cut Sudan off from much of the global financial system.

The decision marked a turnaround for the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who once played host to Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.

Still, Sudan will stay on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism - alongside Iran and Syria - which carries a ban on weapons sales and restrictions on US aid, US officials said.

Sudanese officials also remain subject to United Nations sanctions for human rights abuses during the Darfur conflict, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The lifting of sanctions reflects a US assessment that Sudan has made progress in meeting Washington’s demands, including cooperation on counter-terrorism, working to resolve internal conflicts and allowing more humanitarian aid into Darfur and other rebellious border areas, the officials said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the sanctions relief was in recognition of Sudan's "sustained positive actions" but that more improvement was needed.

The Trump administration also secured a commitment from Sudan that it would "not pursue arms deals" with North Korea, and Washington will apply "zero tolerance" in ensuring Khartoum's compliance, one of the officials said.

But they said Khartoum's assurances on North Korea were not a condition for lifting sanctions, some of which had been in place for 20 years and have hobbled the Sudanese economy.

Sudan has long been suspected of military ties with North Korea, which is locked in a tense standoff with Washington over its missiles and nuclear weapons programmes. But the official said Khartoum was not believed to have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and that was not expected to change.

Sudan also has recently distanced itself diplomatically from Iran, another US arch-foe.

US officials have said that sanctions relief, which will unfreeze Sudanese government assets, could benefit a range businesses in Sudan, including its key energy sector.

The economy has been reeling since South Sudan, which contains three-quarters of former Sudan's oil wells, seceded in 2011.

Shortly before leaving office, Obama temporarily eased penalties against the east African nation. In July, Trump postponed for three months a decision on whether to remove the sanctions completely, setting up a 12 October deadline.

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Rights groups see the sanctions removal as premature.

“It sends the wrong message to lift these sanctions permanently when Sudan has made so little progress on human rights," said Andrea Prasow, deputy director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.

Democratic US Representative Jim McGovern said the sanctions decision “legitimises the murderous actions of the Sudanese government” and warned that “any back-sliding will likely result in Congress reinstating sanctions.”

The United States first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997, including a trade embargo and blocking government assets, for human rights violations and terrorism concerns. Washington layered on more sanctions in 2006 for what it said was complicity in the violence in Sudan's Darfur region.

Jehanne Henry, of Human Rights Watch, has warned that the Sudanese government is not doing enough to improve human rights in the country.

“Lifting US sanctions sends the message that Sudan is making progress, when in fact all the Sudanese government is doing is reducing the intensity of wars and making promises for better humanitarian access,” Henry told MEE before the decision was announced.

“Its progress on human rights is superficial at best.”

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