The Guardian | Published: August 18, 2019
Omar al-Bashir faces long jail term if convicted as country’s military leaders pave way for civilian rule
Khartoum: civilians hold their national flag as they celebrate the signing of the Sudan’s power sharing deal. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum
Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, will appear in court on Monday for the first day of a high-profile corruption trial that could end in the deposed autocratic ruler being jailed for many years.
Bashir was forced out of power in April when security forces withdrew their support for his regime after months of popular protests. He is now in prison and will be charged with possessing foreign currency, corruption and receiving gifts illegally.
Pro-democracy campaigners and victims of systematic human rights abuses under Bashir’s 30-year rule hope the 75-year-old former dictator will also face further charges of incitement and involvement in the killing of protesters.
The trial comes as Sudan’s military rulers and protest leaders begin to implement a landmark deal reached earlier this month that is meant to pave the way for civilian rule.
The deal between the country’s military rulers and the opposition coalition of the Alliance for Freedom and Change was welcomed with relief by both sides, with protesters celebrating what they saw as the victory of their “revolution” and generals taking credit for averting a bloody civil war.
Tens of thousands of people of all ages took to the streets of Khartoum on Saturday in celebration, with many heading toward the newly renamed Freedom Square, once the site of many of Bashir’s rallies.
A key priority for the pro-democracy campaigners – to bring former members of Bashir’s regime to justice – is high up in the new constitutional charter.
“The context is that this is an emergent, transitional government that …. includes many who served under Bashir and were his supporters,” said Ahmed Soliman, of London’s Chatham House thinktank.
“It is not the case that the revolution has been fully successful and we are starting from scratch. An accommodation has needed to take place to move the country forward but it will mean difficult choices once the new government is in place,”
There is already anger that Bashir will not face more serious charges immediately.
Amany Abduljalel, a 21-year-old university student, lost her right eye after being hit by a teargas canister fired by security forces in February during a protest demanding that Bashir step down. “It’s not going to be the justice that we want … At the end he’s not going to be forced to account for the things that he did to us …. Nobody who lost part of their body will get it back or the martyrs will come back”, she said.
But Sidiq Ishaq, an English language student from Zalingei, in the restive central Darfur state, was badly injured during a demonstration outside the office of the notorious the National Intelligence and Security Services in April. He said he was simply happy that Bashir, 75, was on trial at all.
Members of former dictator’s legal team – which includes almost 100 lawyers – are optimistic the court will throw out the current graft charges.
Mohamed el-Hassan el-Amin told the Guardian that the worst punishment Bashir would face was a fine. “There’s no way he will be condemned in this case …. When he did what he did he was then a president with immunity,” El-Amin said.
Human rights lawyers say charges for more serious offences will come when the civilian-led government is formed. “It won’t only be him, but other big figures of his regime will all face these charges. We are just waiting to have a proper justice minister, and a new attorney general,” said Abdullah Galley, member of the Democratic Coalition for Lawyers.
So far, authorities in Sudan have refused to hand Bashir to the international criminal court in The Hague, which has accused him of criminal responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide following the killing, maiming and torture of hundreds of thousands of people in the region of Darfur.
The United Nations estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 people died in the conflict, with a further 2.7 million displaced. Militia formed and directed by Bashir are blamed for the worst atrocities.
“While this trial is a positive step towards accountability for some of his alleged crimes, [Bashir] remains wanted for heinous crimes committed against the Sudanese people,” said Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Joan Nyanyuki.
Peter Martell, a Nairobi-based regional specialist and author, said the trial was significant. “When the ICC charges were announced, Bashir was defiant. This at least means Bashir is not living out his old age in luxury on the banks of the Nile. That is some justice and that does matter on a deeply personal level, outside the politics of Khartoum,” Martell said.
With many issues still unaddressed, however, observers warn that describing the latest events as ‘successful regime change’ would be premature. Though the compromise meets several of the protest camp’s key demands, its terms leave the military with ample powers and its future civilian government with daunting challenges.
Under the deal elections must be held in just over three years, but until then the country will be ruled by the 11-member sovereign council and a government dominated by civilians.
“Political dynamics will matter more than pieces of paper,” said Rosalind Marsden, a former British ambassador to Sudan. “The biggest challenge facing the government will be dismantling the Islamist deep state … which took control of all state institutions and key sectors of the economy, including hundreds of businesses owned by the military-security apparatus.”