Last weekend, the Sudanese authorities arrested Doctor Hassan Al-Turabi, leader of the opposition Popular Congress (PCP) party in his Khartoum home. At dawn, security personnel then raided a newspaper linked to the party, arrested staff and seized the Sunday print run. Al-Turabi was accused by the regime in power of directing the attacks of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur. A senior official of the ministry of information, Rabie Abdelati, said “the government has a lot of evidence that Dr Turabi is behind all the acts of JEM….He is directing JEM. He is behind the attacks committed by JEM that caused so many deaths and injuries”. Abdelati, who is also a member of the ruling National Congress Party, said another reason for the arrest was a series of articles published by the PCP newspaper, RAI AL-SHAAB, which he said insulted the president (Omar el-Bashir) and destabilized the country. Some of these articles, he said, accused el-Bashir of rigging the recent elections and others reported that Iran was developing weapons in a Sudanese factory.
Later, the Sudanese Media Center, a government institution, reported that the head of Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service, Muhammad Atta al-Mawla Abbas, had ordered the confiscation of the assets of the newspaper on grounds of national security. A security source was then quoted as saying that actions taken do not “mean a backtrack(ing) from the democratic transformation or suppression of public freedoms in the country”. But reacting to the developments, the Popular Congress Party (PCP), through a spokesperson, Kamal Omar, dismissed the accusations as a fabrication. “This charge is not true. It is the usual charge the government comes up with to cover up its political mistakes in Darfur”. The presidential candidate of the PCP, Abdallah Nhial Deng, also “condemned the arrest. It shows we are not heading toward democratic transformation”. “The government”, he said, “will bear responsibility for any deterioration in his health”. Similarly, the deputy chairman of the PCP, Abdullah Hassan Ahmad, defiantly said “Al-Turabi is used to prison. This is not new to him and he will take this opportunity to contemplate, research and maybe write a book”. In response to the arrest of Dr Turabi, about 70 opposition supporters also held a brief public protest outside the PCP’s office in Khartoum.
The arrest of Dr Turabi and especially the closure of his party’s newspaper including the arrest of the editor-in-chief and two journalists, heightened fears of the beginning of the reversal of press freedom in the country. Aljazeera reported that in the period leading to the last election, journalists had welcomed the respite from censorship but were apprehensive that the situation was likely to change when voting was over. Durra Gambo, a Sudanese journalist was quoted by Aljazeera as saying that editors of all Sudanese newspapers were recently summoned to attend a meeting with the Academy of National Security. “Many journalists fear that this could be when they will all be told that censorship will be back”, she said. “The media freedom we [enjoyed] during the elections may be over tomorrow if the meeting turns out to be an announcement of return of the censorship. The problem with censorship here is that there are no obvious rules, it is all subjective and what the people in charge feel is a red line”.
The recent arrest of Dr Hassan Turabi is only one of many imprisonments and house arrests he has suffered in recentyears, since he became an opponent of the National Congress Party regime of Omar el-Bashir. But the relationship used to be cordial, with Turabi said to be the spiritual leader for el-Bashir when he organized the coup which brought him into power in 1989, leading an islamist government. The two were to break up ten years later, in 1999, over the introduction of a bill to limit the powers of the president. El-Bashir countered the move by dissolving parliament and declaring a state of emergency, according to Aljazera. Turabi told the same media outlet, that his relationship with the NCP regime soured because the NCP had deviated from the core values of sharia. On the Darfur situation, Turabi told Aljazeera that the peace agreement was not moving fast enough, and that an agreement should have been in place by the elections so that Darfurians would have participated.
Dr Turabi was also arrested in January 2009, after calling on president el-Bashir to hand himself over to the International Criminal Court, following his indictment for crimes in Darfur. He was similarly arrested in 2008, following an audacious attack by rebels of JEM, on Omdurman, close to the capital, Khartoum. Turabi also spent 16 months in prison in 2004/5, during which he spent several weeks on hunger strike. That period of detention followed accusations that he had been involved in a plot to overthrow the junta of el-Bashir; Turabi denied the charges. He had also been arrested after signing a deal with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which was then fighting for greater autonomy for South Sudan. The coup accusation and his March 2004 arrest came only a few months after his release from a 32 months detention in October 2003.
Doctor Hassan Al-Turabi is one of the dinosaurs of Sudan’s politics. He has been politically active for more than forty years in Sudan and as the BBC reported following his 2009 arrest, Turabi “has been imprisoned or held under house arrest on several occasions. Those times in detention have been interspersed with periods of high political office”. Doctor Turabi was born in 1932 to the family of a Sufi sheikh and received Islamic education before going to study in Khartoum, London, and finally earning a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.
Turabi joined the Muslim Brotherhood and rose to prominence during a 1964 popular uprising against President Ibrahim Abbud. Following the 1969 coup that brought Jaffar Nimeiri to power, Turabi was imprisoned for six years before escaping into a Libyan exile for three years. By 1979, Nimeiri sought rapprochement with Islamists and Turabi was appointed Attorney General, during which he was said to have been behind the introduction of aspects of Sharia in the multi-religious country. Dr Turabi was imprisoned again along with other prominent political leaders following the coup which brought Omar el-Bashir to power in 1989, but was soon released and given an important position in the government to help fashion government policies in accordance with Sharia. He became speaker of the Sudanese parliament after the 1996 elections and by 1999 was named the Secretary General of the National Congress Party, which had evolved out of the National Islamic Front, under president el-Bashir. It was in 1999, that the relationship between the two became bitter and antagonistic.
It is this background of a once chummy relationship turned sour, which has led to the various arrests that Hassan Turabi has endured over the past few years. The latest arrest will therefore be seen as one of several for a very controversial but colorful Sudanese politician. Hassan Turabi is now a venerable old man of Sudanese politics, and it is testimony to his age-related frailty that in 2009, he started to emphasize that leadership in Sudan should now come from the younger generation, stating further that he no longer had the energy to run in elections. By January 200, the PCP named Abdullahi Deng Nial as his deputy and candidate for the2010 presidential election. These are not the best of times for Doctor Hassan Turabi, but he has been here before; and as Abdallah Hassan Ahmad, the PCP deputy chairman said, Turabi will take the period of his imprisonment to meditate and draw useful lessons that only a colourfulbut controversial political career like his, can teach.