Today, Sudan president Omar al-Bashir ordered the release of “political detainees”, welcome news for 60 or so men who have languished behind bars for weeks. But it is also a grim reminder of a defining feature of Sudan’s political landscape: the periodic mass arrest and detention of opposition leaders to silence them whenever they threaten to speak out.
These latest detentions – in a long history of similar detentions – were part of a crackdown that started in January to stifle opposition-led protests over new budget and austerity measures. Police and national security agents arrested hundreds of people, during protests or from homes, offices, or off the streets, and held them without charge or access to lawyer or family visits.
While authorities released some in following weeks, they kept many dozens locked up for weeks, mostly in Khartoum. Many of the detainees, like economist Sidqi Kabalo, are elderly, life-long leaders in Sudan’s Communist Party; others belong to other opposition parties and movements or, like lawyer Salih Mahmoud, are known rights activists. Mahmoud has received the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov prize, and an award from Human Rights Watch, for his work on Darfur.
Al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur, might hope this move will appease international onlookers. The UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on Sudan is due to visit the country later this week. A well-timed prisoner release could help burnish his image.
Sudan has done some clever politicking on the international stage recently. Along with promises to cooperate on counterterrorism and downshift its civil wars, it succeeded in convincing the US to lift economic sanctions last year. In addition, through cooperation with the EU, it received hundreds of millions of Euros for projects to stem migration – support which frankly further empowers the notoriously abusive Rapid Support Forces, who committed grave crimes in Darfur and elsewhere.
Beyond insisting on the release of everyone arbitrarily detained, onlookers should insist on the radical reform of Sudan’s national security body, the National Intelligence and Security Service. With broad powers of arrest and detention up to four-and-a-half-months, NISS’s ill-treatment and torture of detainees is well documented. We have repeatedly documented harsh conditions of extreme heat or cold, beatings, electrocution, verbal, and other abuses.
Whatever his motivations, al-Bashir does not deserve congratulations. The release of political detainees is not a gift or a political concession, but a basic obligation of respect for fundamental principles of human rights and rule of law.