Sudan Frees Political Prisoners as Opposition Urges More Reform

Sudanese authorities freed seven political prisoners hours after President Umar al-Bashir announced an amnesty, while opposition officials urged further action to prove the government’s commitment to reform.

The seven were released from prison in north Khartoum, the capital, at midnight, the state-run Suna news agency said today. Bashir yesterday announced in parliament the release of “all political prisoners” as a step toward building a “national dialogue.” Six of those released belong to parties that took part in January talks that led to the signing of an agreement to unite political and armed opposition groups.

The release followed an agreement mediated by the African Union last month to withdraw troops from the border with South Sudan and to resume oil exports from its southern neighbor. Vice President Ali Osman Taha on March 26 urged rebels battling government forces in the states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to join efforts to write a new constitution.

While a leader of that rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, called the amnesty “old milk in a new bottle,” the move was welcomed by a member of the Umma party, led by former Prime Minister Sadig al-Mahdi, whom Bashir overthrew in a 1989 coup.

“It’s a step toward democracy, justice and national reconciliation,” Latif Joseph Sabag, a member of the Umma party’s political bureau, said today by phone from Khartoum. “We hope it will continue, we have been waiting for this.”

Opposition Waits

Other opposition figures said they wanted to see more action before judging the ruling National Congress Party’s commitment to political freedom. The International Criminal Court has charged Bashir, 69, with responsibility for genocide and crimes against humanity during a counterinsurgency campaign in the western region of Darfur.

“Only seven have been released, there are hundreds of political detainees,” Adam Bashir Rahma, secretary of external affairs with the Popular Congress Party, said by phone. “We want to wait and see if the NCP is serious or it’s just a political ploy.”

Amnesty International said the president’s definition of political prisoners was unclear.

“Last August, the authorities released a large number of prisoners that had been detained arbitrarily, but the measure did not encompass all political prisoners,” Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, Sudan researcher at the London-based rights group, said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions.

The government releases prisoners “while keeping the same laws that detained them,” SPLM-N Secretary-General Yasser Arman said in an e-mailed statement. The whereabouts of more than 600 other detainees are unknown, he said.

Bashir is “calling for the opposition to join him in an empty constitutional process” that will “renew his license” to rule Sudan without addressing the fundamental issues, Arman said.

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