Sudan top spy orders release of detainees held in protests

30 January 2019 - 10:44
Sudanese police fire tear gas at hundreds of protesters trying to march on the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum, more than a month after the deadly protests triggered by the government's decision to triple the price of bread started.
Image: AFP Sudanese police fire tear gas at hundreds of protesters trying to march on the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum, more than a month after the deadly protests triggered by the government's decision to triple the price of bread started.

The head of Sudan's powerful intelligence agency on Tuesday ordered the release of all detainees held during anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the country for weeks, even as protesters staged new rallies.

The order issued by Salah Ghosh comes amid mounting international criticism of the agency's sweeping crackdown to prevent the spread of protests that first erupted in December.

"The chief of the National Intelligence and Security Service issued an order to release all detainees held in recent incidents," the information ministry said.

The Sudanese Professionals Association that is leading the protest campaign dismissed the release order.

"We do not trust the lies of this regime as until now the authorities have detained only free people," the SPA said, as it called for more demonstrations over the next two days.

Rights groups say NISS has arrested more than 1,000 people, including protesters, opposition leaders, activists and journalists, as part of the clampdown on the demonstrations.

The east African nation has been rocked by deadly protests since December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.

The demonstrations swifty turned into nationwide calls for President Omar al-Bashir to step down.

Riot police have confronted the protesters with tear gas as part of the NISS-led crackdown.

Officials say 30 people have died in violence during the protests, while rights groups have put the death toll at more than 40.

Mourning turns into demo

Hours before Tuesday's order to release the detainees came, crowds of protesters took to the streets in parts of Khartoum and Omdurman, but they were quickly tear-gassed, witnesses said.

Chanting "Freedom, peace, justice" and "We are not scared," protesters clapped and whistled as they launched new rallies, witnesses said.

In a separate demonstration, tribesmen from the Red Sea city of Port Sudan mourned the deaths 14 years ago of comrades with a sit-in against Bashir's government, witnesses and activists said.

On January 29, 2005, crowds of people from the Beja tribe held a protest in the city calling on Khartoum to allocate more resources to the east Sudan region from where it hails.

In ensuing clashes with government forces, 21 demonstrators were killed, according to activists.

Since then every year on January 29, Beja tribesmen mark the deaths with a sit-in at Port Sudan.

On Tuesday it turned into a protest against Bashir's government, activists said.

"This sit-in is not just to mourn the 2005 deaths, but also to mourn the deaths of those who have died in the uprising since December," Beja activist Abdallah Mussa told AFP from Port Sudan.

The veteran leader has remained defiant in the face of protests.

US criticism

The widespread crackdown against protesters has triggered international criticism, with the United States warning Khartoum its actions might impact ties between the two.

The United States urged Khartoum to free all "journalists, activists and peaceful protesters who have been arbitrarily detained."

"We also call on the government to allow for a credible and independent investigation into the deaths and injuries of protesters," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said last week.

Excessive use of force and intimidation of the press and rights activists, he warned, would jeopardise ties with the United States.

The US has been slowly mending relations with Sudan after decades of tension, including over the presence of late Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the country in the 1990s and a military campaign in the western region of Darfur that Washington described as genocide.

Britain, Canada, Norway and the United Nations have also criticised the crackdown, along with rights groups.

But regional powers Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar have remained supportive of Sudan.

"The cabinet emphasised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's solidarity with the Republic of Sudan as it faces economic challenges," read the minutes of a cabinet session published by Riyadh's state-run SPA news agency on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reiterated his country's support to Sudan's "security and stability" in talks with Bashir in Cairo.

For years, anger has been mounting across Sudan over growing economic hardships and deteriorating living conditions.

That ire has now spilt onto the streets, with protesters demanding the resignation of Bashir.

Bashir has blamed the country's economic woes on Washington, after it imposed a trade embargo on Khartoum in 1997.

Washington lifted the embargo in October 2017, but that has failed to revive Sudan's economy hit by soaring inflation and an acute foreign currency shortage.