Home | News    Saturday 3 April 2004

Detained opposition leader, Islamic fundamentalist further isolated in Sudan

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KHARTOUM, Sudan, April 3, 2004 (AP) — Sudanese opposition leader Hassan Turabi helped the president he’s now accused of trying to undermine rise to power in a coup 14 years ago and provided the rationale for Sudan’s transformation into an Islamic country where the likes of Osama Ben Laden once found a haven.

But President Omar Bashir is now trying to steer Sudan away from fundamentalism, a campaign given new urgency because of the fear of being isolated or worse in the wake of the US led war on terror.

And Turabi, who fell out with the president in 1999, is even further on the political edge after being accused Saturday of inciting sedition, sabotage, hatred against the state and undermining Bashir’s regime. Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party said Turabi’s organisation was involved in plans to assassinate top figures and attack power stations and military installations.

Turabi and about 30 soldiers, policemen and members of his political party were rounded up after the government said it had uncovered a plot to topple Bashir. Turabi’s party has rejected the government’s accusations.

Turabi faces further interrogation before a decision will be made on whether he will face trial.

Analysts say the once-powerful Turabi’s influence, though it has waned significantly, is still a challenge to the government.

"I believe the government knows that he is a pragmatic man, a man who does not accept half-solutions, and who can do anything to achieve his plans," said Hajj Warrag, co-editor of the independent Sahafa newspaper.

In 1989, Turabi enjoyed a very different relationship with Sudan’s political elite.

After helping Bashir topple Sudan’s last democratically elected leader, former Prime Minister Sadiq Al Mahdi, that year, Turabi became one of the African country’s most powerful figures during the next decade, a time when Sudan was a haven for foreign extremists, including Ben Laden.

Turabi told the Associated Press in 1998 that the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were "understandable" and he considered Ben Laden a hero.

But intense international pressure on Sudan to end its ties with terrorism and the country’s own domestic problems — led by a two decade-long civil war that has claimed more than 2 million people — ate away at Turabi’s influence.

US sanctions ban American companies from doing business in Sudan.

The move towards fundamentalism under Turabi’s influence had exacerbated the southern war, in which the mostly Christian and animist rebels have been fighting for autonomy from what they see as a Muslim clique in the Arabized north.

Bashir and Turabi fell out in 1999 after the president accused Turabi, then speaker of parliament, of trying to grab power and stripped him of his position.

Bashir began to move away from fundamentalism, in part, experts say, out of eagerness to get foreign aid and technology from the West to exploit his country’s oil resources. Turabi, meanwhile, formed the Popular Congress and became the most prominent Islamist in opposition.

Turabi spent two years under house arrest after his party signed a peace deal with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, leader of the southern rebellion.

His return to custody Wednesday comes just five months after authorities released him from house arrest, ruling that "circumstances that had led to his arrest are no longer valid." Turabi is now being linked with a different Sudanese conflict in the restive western province of Darfur, where local tribes have been in revolt since early 2003.

The United States and the United Nations claim Bashir’s government has been supporting militias responsible for displacing more than 700,000 people inside Sudan and sending tens of thousands into neighbouring Chad.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also accused Sudanese forces of killing, raping and forcing civilians from their homes to suppress the insurgency.

The government denies the claims.

Hassan Mekki, a political science professor at the International African University and the University of Khartoum, said Turabi’s detention was preventative, as the party leader still enjoyed a degree of political influence.

"The government has strong reason to believe that the brain behind the internationalisation of the question of Darfur is him, so they want to remove him from the scene for the time being. What is happening now is a summer tumult, it might soon dissipate," Mekki said.

Several days before being detained, Turabi told the London-based Asharq Awsat that he believed he and supporters would be arrested because of the Darfur conflict. He said the government tried to make the Popular Congress the scapegoat for troubles in the south because of the party’s overture to the southern rebels, and "it will now blame them for the Darfur issue and will jail them." In the interview published Saturday, Turabi told Asharq Awsat that Bashir’s government wants to blame the Darfur conflict on his party to win favour with the West by saying Islamists are behind the violence.

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