Sudan Frees Jailed Ex-PM Mahdi After One Month in Detention

Sudanese opposition leader Sadig al-Mahdi was released after a month in custody in a case that prompted criticism from the European Union over curbs on free speech.

Al-Mahdi, the head of the Umma Party, was freed yesterday after Sudan’s Justice Ministry dropped charges filed following his criticism of a military unit deployed by the country’s security services against insurgents. His release has “public, social and political benefit,” Yasser Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed, an official at the state security prosecution, was quoted by the state-run Suna news agency as saying.

“This experience I went through had many advantages, because it showed that Sudanese people are united in their goals,” al-Mahdi told supporters at his party’s headquarters in Omdurman, the twin city of the capital, Khartoum, yesterday.

Al-Mahdi was arrested by Sudanese authorities on May 17 in a move the EU warned could have an adverse effect on talks President Umar al-Bashir’s government planned with opposition groups on improving the country’s political system. The Umma Party suspended its participation in protest.

The EU described al-Mahdi’s release as a step in the “right direction” to resuming political dialog, according to a statement e-mailed today from the body’s delegation in Sudan.

‘Necessary Step’

The former prime minister was questioned on suspicion of undermining the constitution, spreading false news and sedition after he said that the Rapid Support Forces, a military unit deployed to combat unrest in the western region of Darfur as well as in Southern Kordofan, had committed human rights violations.

Freeing al-Mahdi was a “necessary step to get opposition parties back to the negotiation table with the government but it’s not enough,” Safwat Fanous, a politics professor at the University of Khartoum, said by phone. “The opposition will want extra assurances from the government about freedoms, which will take time and effort.”

Sudan’s government has to balance calls from inside and outside the ruling party to open up the political system while adhering to restrictions placed by the security services, Fanous said. “Now the state is fighting a fierce war against an insurgency and in such times the security side always wins.”

Al-Mahdi, 78, first served as Sudan’s prime minister in 1966-67. He held the post again between 1986 and 1989, when he was deposed in the coup that brought al-Bashir to power.

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