By Tom Perry and Nima Elbagir
KHARTOUM, Oct 18 (Reuters) – An Islamist opposition leader, who was freed from house arrest by Sudan’s government this week, called on Saturday for early countrywide elections to secure any peace deal now being hammered out with rebels in the south.
Hassan al-Turabi, a former ally of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir before he was detained in 2001 after a power struggle, said in an interview the regions should have more power, including on matters of religion.
The implementation of Islamic sharia law by Sudan’s then government across Africa’s largest country, which is mainly Christian or animist in the south, was a catalyst for a southern rebellion against central government that erupted in 1983.
Bashir’s Islamist government, which came to power in 1989 coup, is now in talks with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to end the 20-year-old conflict that has killed two million people.
Peace talks in Kenya are discussing wealth and power sharing, but have agreed in principle on issues of religion and giving the south on vote on secession after six years.
Turabi, who heads the Popular National Congress party and was once the ideologue for Bashir’s government, said elections were key to preventing secession of the south.
“Elections should be as soon as possible,” the 70-year-old told Reuters and Sudan’s daily Al-Khartoum at his Khartoum home.
He said government in Sudan, Africa’s largest country with several ethnic groups, should be decentralised.
“Sudan is too big to be governed from one centre,” he said.
He said Bashir’s government had warped his ideas on implementing sharia, saying most laws — including those on freedom of worship and alcohol consumption barred under sharia – – should be determined by individuals, not the state.
“Family laws, personal laws…what you drink, the way you dress, the way you associate with people… Those laws have to be personalised. Other laws have to be local. Each federated state parliament should develop its own laws,” he said.
Turabi said he wanted “freedom for all, even for those who attack Islam, as long as it’s verbal or writing, allow it. And then democracy, for all people down to the bottom”.
Bashir detained Turabi in 2001 for crimes against the state after he signed a memorandum of understanding with the SPLA, while government forces were still fighting in the south.
Turabi’s release was seen as a government attempt to rally support from Turabi’s northern support base for any peace deal with the SPLA, which is seeking more autonomy for the south.
For many southerners, Turabi is a symbol of Khartoum’s attempt to impose Arabic and Islam in the south.
Securing a peace deal is seen as crucial to ending the international isolation of Sudan, which Washington lists one of the “state sponsors of terrorism”. Washington has played a key role in pressuring Khartoum to end the war in the south.
In the 1990s, when Sudan hosted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Turabi was seen as the driving force behind Khartoum’s promotion of Islamic militant groups. He organised conferences in Sudan attended by Muslim militant groups from the Arab world.
Turabi, a European-educated lawyer, said the U.S.-led war on terror has turned Muslims against the United States.
“The worst thing is happening now because the whole Muslim world…is announcing that America is the devil,” he said.
“Americans are anti-Islam. The word terrorism is used simply as a cover up for the war on Islam,” he said, adding that the U.S. campaign had made bin Laden into a hero for many.