Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rumblings of Dissent on Bashir Indictment

President’s opponents initially defended him against genocide accusations, but now that support seems to be peeling away.
By Sudanese journalists
Seven weeks after the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC, asked judges to indict Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity, some domestic voices are now being heard that replace the initial expressions of support with calls for him to step down.

The first political leader to say so publicly was Ibrahim al-Shaikh, who is head of the small Sudanese Congress Party.

Speaking at his party headquarters in Omdurman about how the country should deal with a possible indictment, al-Shaikh said there was ample evidence of the president’s involvement in crimes committed in Darfur.

“We cannot believe that the planes bombing civilians in Darfur can do that without his permission and approval,” said al-Shaikh.

Since the United Nations Security Council, UNSC, referred Darfur to the ICC in March 2005, al-Bashir’s government has strongly rejected the court’s jurisdiction, claiming to have a capable and impartial justice system able to prosecute crimes nationally.

However, all the initiatives set up by Khartoum – like the Special Criminal Court on the Events in Darfur established one day after the ICC’s investigation was launched in June 2005 – have been dismissed as insincere by justice experts and human rights groups.

According to al-Shaikh, “It is clear to everyone that our judicial system is not willing to or capable of trying those who committed crimes, because of the lack of capacity of our lawyers and judges, which results from their lack of independence.”

He called on the president to resign, adding, “If he thinks he is innocent, he should agree to stand trial, because that is the only way to end the crisis facing the country.”

This is the first open call of its kind since the prosecutor’s application for an arrest warrant against al-Bashir in mid-July, but it reflects a broader trend towards public questioning of the official line.

In the days before the prosecutor’s announcement, al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, NCP, made every effort to show the world that the whole country was behind its leader, rallying support from all the political parties represented in parliament as well as internationally, from regional organisations like the Arab League and the African Union.

Commentators outside Sudan were taken aback as opposition parties scrambled to support al-Bashir and the NCP, but few within the country were surprised.

Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989 and continues to control the army, police and security services, giving him a lot of leverage against his opponents. His NCP has a tight grip on power, leaving little room for other parties in the National Assembly to influence his agenda.

In the aftermath of the prosecutor’s announcement, state-run radio and TV stations repeatedly broadcast messages of solidarity with the president, and the government tightened its censorship of independent newspapers.

Editors were issued with new instructions which said that “any report or article seeming to be, or suspected of being, supportive of the ICC or the prosecutor will make the newspaper subject to suspension and the confiscation of its property”.

Pre-printing censorship was a daily reality before a new constitution was signed in July 2005 and the government announced that it was abolishing the practice.

But journalists in Khartoum have told IWPR that censorship was reintroduced in 2006 and has been enforced sporadically since then. Since a clamp-down in February this year, censors have visited newspapers every night before their publication deadline, vetoing any article seen as unsupportive of the government.

Judges at the ICC are still reviewing the evidence submitted by the prosecutors and have yet to issue an indictment for al-Bashir. A decision on whether to do so is expected any day now.

Prosecutors say al-Bashir is responsible for ten counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit peoples of Darfur.

They say that over the last five years, the president has masterminded crimes to destroy communities on ethnic grounds, ordering the destruction of food stocks, shelter, and wells; and that he conducted genocide through rape, hunger and fear as government troops and allied “janjaweed” militiamen murdered, tortured, raped civilians and forced them from their homes.

After this initial wave of violence, prosecutors say al-Bashir mobilised the armed forces, intelligence agencies, diplomatic services, media and the justice system to inflict conditions on the two-and-a-half million displaced people living in camps calculated to destroy them.

Just seven weeks on from the prosecutor’s request, the daily protest marches against the ICC have stopped, and security restrictions on the printed media seem to have softened.

According to journalists in Khartoum, government censors are now allowing the publication of some articles that criticise the government’s handling of the ICC crisis, as well as pieces that call for a joint political and legal resolution to the situation.

None is outwardly calling for the president to stand down or face trial at the ICC, yet it is of some significance that the authors of opinion pieces are daring to critique the government and offer suggestions on how to solve the problem.

For example, an article by Amin Makki Madani, a former cabinet minister and now a human rights advocate, criticised the government’s approach, advising it to take legal and political steps to reform Sudan’s laws, and create openness inside the country in order to facilitate a genuine national dialogue. The piece was published in the independent daily Al-Ahdath.

Last month, the president launched the “People of Sudan” initiative, under which the NCP would lead a political process to resolve the Darfur crisis. According to the state-run SUNA news agency, Al-Bashir wants a “peaceful solution of the Darfur issue through the initiative of the people of Sudan with participation of all parties and respect of the government to all its regional and international commitments”.

In a reference to this plan, Ali Mahmud Hasanain, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told the Al-Sahafa newspaper that al-Bashir should stop “wasting time with presidential initiatives and conferences”, and instead issue a decree accepting the conditions set by Darfur’s rebel movements.

Although the president’s initiative envisages drawing in parties and rebel groups that have not previously signed up to peace agreements, some have already dismissed the idea. The Justice and Equality Movement, one of the Darfur rebel groups, said that “al-Bashir cannot be defendant and judge at the same time”.

Abdelbagi Jabril from the Darfur Relief and Documentation Centre cautions that the current relaxation of the censorship over the ICC issue is only relative, and may be more a reflection of erratic policymaking than of real change.

“The government may have a crisis about al-Bashir and the ICC one day, but the next day there will be another crisis – created by themselves – which journalists will not be allowed to speak about,” he said. “One crisis is taboo one week, and another is taboo the week later. There is no opening up of the press in terms of the ICC, but another crisis may take over importance. The press should be free to reflect the views of the country, but this is not the case.

“They may allow you to write a story one week, but only if it serves their objectives. Censoring is a reality and journalists are not free.”

One such event that eclipsed the ICC saga as a priority for censors was the August 25 attack by government troops on internally displaced people or IDPs in the vast Kalma camp, housing 90,000 people, near Nyala, the capital of south Darfur.

A psychosocial worker in the camp who witnessed the attack told IWPR by phone that Sudanese police and military forces arrived in around 100 four-by-four vehicles, killing 38 civilians and injuring 117. Official figures from the Sudanese government put the death toll at six.

The social worker said the Sudanese media distorted the facts to reflect the government’s version of events.

"Newspapers say the government attacked because there are weapons and drugs inside the camp, but the media is under government control, so they are going to say what the government says,” he [or she] said.

"The government wants to close down Kalma camp because it is a threat. Unlike the Al-Salam and Sereif camps in Nyala, it is not government-controlled and there is no police station inside the camp, after the last one was burned in 2005 by IDPs.”

"The only real information about the attacks is written by journalists from the international community. In newspapers here, they are saying only six people are dead."

The Sudan Tribune, based in France, reported that an article in Al-Ahdath quoting Foreign Minister Deng Alor as criticising the attack had been blocked by censors.

According to the Sudan Tribune, Alor, who belongs to the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, SPLM, the main political force in the semi-autonomous south of the country, said the incident would create “unnecessary problems” for Sudan.

Hafiz Mohammed, from the London-based group Justice Africa, explained that reporting on the case was censored because ministers from Darfur, some of them members of al-Bashir’s NCP, had resigned in protest at the attack.

“This is very embarrassing, and even more difficult than people calling for al-Bashir to stand down, because it comes at a time when the government is about to launch the Sudanese People’s Initiative.”

It is hard to assess the true level of political support for al-Bashir from reading the censored press, but contacts in Khartoum say Al-Shaikh’s Congress Party stands almost alone in openly calling for the president’s resignation.

The party is secular, liberal and progressive in outlook, and was established in 1985 soon after the downfall of the dictator Gaafar Numayri Nimeiri. It has opposed al-Bashir’s rule since he seized power in 1989.

It started out as the National Congress Party, but changed its name to the Sudanese Congress Party after al-Bashir commandeered the title for his own political vehicle.

Only some small parties, like the Movement of New Democratic Forces, and Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party have publicly echoed his calls for al-Bashir’s resignation.

“These are fringe parties with no influence within the political arena, but more like pressure groups, and the government does not think any move by them will create popular support amongst the main parties,” explained Justice Africa’s Mohammed.

Meanwhile, the main parties represented in the National Assembly continue to support al-Bashir, outwardly at least.

Jabril said that in private, almost all the opposition parties would like an end to al-Bashir’s rule, but are faced with a dilemma because challenging him directly could uncover a complex set of split allegiances.

“They have to be careful in public to speak against him because they might disenfranchise members who feel solidarity with al-Bashir as Muslims and Arabs. Some do not understand that indicting the president is not indicting the country, and make direct links between the head of state and the state itself,” said Jabril.

Northern Sudanese parties like the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionists may be deterred from publicly criticising the head of state out of a fear that if he was deposed, his replacement might be a non-Muslim, like vice-president and SPLM leader Silva Kiir.

“If al-Bashir is indicted, he will not run for president which opens the way for Silva Kiir. The Umma Party and the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] will not condemn al-Bashir because they do not want a non-Muslim or non-Arab to win the presidency,” explained Mohammed. “This is why they might make a deal with al-Bashir on how to contest the next election.”

Indeed, the Umma Party recently signed a political partnership agreement with al-Bashir, cementing its support of him and guaranteeing cooperation.

Jabril says this is interesting because the Umma Party is also considering how the ICC could work in cooperation with the Sudanese justice system, or whether there could be a mixed tribunal with Sudanese and international judges based inside Sudan.

Meanwhile, vice-president Silva Kiir’s SPLM, a party representing southern Sudan which favours complete autonomy from the north, are keen not to derail the implementation of the long-fought for Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 to bring an end to decades of bitter fighting between north and south Sudan.

Reporting from Sudan was provided by local journalists, who have not been identified out of concern for their security. The report was compiled by Katy Glassborow, an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague.

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