BEIRUT: The arrest of Sudanese opposition leader Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, imprisoned on charges of treason for nearly a month, reveals a web of problems within the ruling National Congress Party, experts say.
Mahdi, the leader of the National Umma Party, is a former prime minister who was ousted from government by current President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 1989.
He was arrested on May 17 for remarks he made accusing paramilitary troops – officially known as the Rapid Support Forces and which act as support for the army in fighting rebels in Kordofan and Darfur – of committing serious abuses within the conflict zones.
The order for his arrest for treason was approved personally by Bashir after an RSF commander complained that Mahdi’s comments would demoralize troops, according to a family member who recently visited the NUP leader in prison.
Treason is punishable by death in Sudan, and according to the Sudanese constitution, any inmate potentially facing the death penalty may not be released on bail. However, due to Mahdi’s age, his lawyers argue that he cannot be sentenced to death.
Amin Makki Madani, a senior human rights lawyer associated with the NUP and a member of his defense council, told The Daily Star, “Mahdi is over 70, and according to our constitution and our criminal code, a person who is over 70 cannot be sentenced to death.
“He should be released from bail pending trial. [The judiciary’s] argument is that he cannot be released from bail as the punishment is punishable by death, and our argument is that the constitution forbids the punishment of death for anybody over 70 and [Mahdi] is over 70.”
To further complicate the situation, Mahdi’s arrest comes at a delicate time for the ruling NCP. The party has been engaged in national dialogue with opposition groups, including the NUP, over the past few months in the hope of improving relations between the NCP and opposition parties.
The dialogue has continued in Mahdi’s absence, but the NUP has now suspended their involvement.
Arresting Mahdi in the midst of diplomatic talks, in which the NUP was largely seen to be making concessions to the government, has destroyed the faith that other parties had for the talks and perplexed many onlookers.
According to the Sudan Tribune, the Reform Now Party, which is also a part of the national dialogue, released a statement saying, “The government’s approach to the current political crisis is at least surprising and can be described as short-sighted and narrow-minded.”
The European Union Delegation to Sudan also released a statement condemning Mahdi’s arrest and expressing their support for the national dialogue.
“The arrest and continued detention of opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi in particular risks having an adverse effect on the process of national dialogue,” they said.
Madani believes that Mahdi’s arrest reveals divisions within the NCP: That the state security wish to see him prosecuted for offending their militia, while other factions of the party want him released as they feel his arrest is raising his profile as an opposition figure and will give him a stronger hand in the national dialogue.
“You see here, there are two considerations: The charges were brought by the state security, of course that is a strong element in the current regime, so releasing him may not clear the [National Intelligence and Security Services] and at the same time, keeping him in will not help the politicians, sort of a Catch 22 situation,” Madani said.
The NUP has already suspended their involvement in the dialogue as long as Mahdi remains in prison and has organized protests following Friday prayers.
AbdelWahab El-Affendi, author of “Turabi’s Revolution: Islam and Power in Sudan” and “For a State of Peace: Conflict and the Future of Democracy in Sudan” and currently a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, told The Daily Star that he believed Mahdi’s arrest indicated the NCP had lost interest in the national dialogue altogether.
“If the dialogue succeeds, there is going to be some opening up of systems, and maybe some people are going to lose, and I think what is happening is, either Bashir himself is having second thoughts – which is probably more likely – or there are some very influential people who want to sabotage this.”
Affendi drew a comparison between Sudan’s current national dialogue and Syria during the Damascus Spring of 2000.
“[President Bashar Assad] opened up a little bit and tried to win people over but he discovered that this would mean that a lot of issues he did not want to discuss would be raised and that this would undermine the regime. I think they have probably reached this realization in Khartoum as well.”
The national dialogue has raised a lot of questions about corruption within the regime, and much of the media are calling for the NCP to face up to allegations made against it.
Following Mahdi’s arrest, the NCP cracked down heavily on press freedoms and suspended independent newspaper Al-Sahia indefinitely.
The NCP promised more liberty to the press at the start of the dialogue but, according to Affendi, they were not prepared to deal with the questions that were raised after.
“The press, for example, latched onto this corruption issue and ran away with it, and they must feel very much undermined, and they want to stop this before they see a drift toward more open administration,” he said.
But Mahdi’s involvement in the national dialogue has left him exposed to similar accusations of corruption as well.
Mahdi’s oldest son, Abdel-Rahman al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, is currently acting as personal assistant to the president while his youngest, Bushra al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, is in the NISS.
These close family ties with the regime, combined with his engagement in the national dialogue, have led many to question his legitimacy as an opposition figure.
“When he declared a dialogue with the government, he was not very popular,” Madani said. “But when he ceased the dialogue, he became a symbol for the opposition.”
Some observers have argued that Mahdi’s arrest could merely be a smoke screen used by the government to re-establish the perception of him as an opposition figure, but Affendi refuted this.
“That would be understandable if he was the only one targeted, but they are targeting a lot of the media, and I think they are worried. They want to slam the lid back on.”
Whatever the true motivation of the ruling party is, Mahdi’s arrest will be a major blockade in helping the country come out of its current political crisis. Sudan has been politically stagnant since the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
There have been no policies put forward, or measures taken, to address the massive loss of revenue caused by the separation, besides the widely unpopular subsidy cuts that led to mass demonstrations last year.
The ruling party is also embroiled in a conflict with rebels in the regions of Dafur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
The national dialogue was intended to be the first step toward alleviating some of these problems, but there is little popular support for it, as Madani highlighted: “I personally don’t think there is much worth in the national dialogue.”
“I think it’s just a question of power sharing rather than solving the chronic problems that we are facing, whether it’s civil wars or foreign relations or public freedoms” he added.
The national dialogue doesn’t address the root of the problems but rather sustains those that are in power, he said: “It’s like anesthesia for a sick person.”