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Turabi, influential Sudanese Islamist, freed from prison

Hassan al-Turabi had called for President Bashir to surrender to the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges.

By Liam Stack / March 9, 2009



Cairo

Sudan released opposition leader and Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi from prison at dawn Monday, citing the 76-year-old’s fragile health, according to the Associated Press. He had been held for seven weeks without charge, his family says.

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Mr. Turabi – whom the Monitor interviewed in 2007 – was arrested on Jan. 14 and sent to a prison in the eastern city of Port Sudan after telling reporters that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir should surrender to the International Criminal Court (ICC), rather than risk causing instability should he be indicted on war-crimes charges.

Last week the ICC made good on its threat, as the Monitor reported here, issuing a warrant for the Sudanese president’s arrest on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Mr. Bashir is accused of masterminding the government’s war against Darfuri rebels, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 300,000 people and internally displaced another 2.7 million.

Turabi is a major figure in Sudan, Africa’s largest country. He was once a key Bashir ally and seen as the spiritual force behind the 1989 coup that swept him to power.

During the 1990s, he was a leading advocate for the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in the multireligious country, spurring further conflict between the Muslim-dominated North and the largely Christian and animist South.

He was also a strong supporter of the presence of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Sudan, which led to US airstrikes against that country following the 1998 terrorist bombings of US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Since then, Turabi and Bashir’s political partnership crumbled. Turabi's outlook became more moderate, and he and Bashir have become fierce opponents. In January, Turabi was the only major Sudanese politician to call for Bashir to cooperate with the war-crimes tribunal, telling reporters:

"Politically we think he is culpable.... He should assume responsibility for whatever is happening in Darfur, displacement, burning all the villages, rapes, I mean systematic rapes, continuously, I mean on a wide scale and the killing," according to Agence France-Presse.

His family kept up their criticism during his detention, with his wife, Wisal al-Mahdi, telling The Sudan Tribune that her husband had been detained because of "personal grudges."

“There is no rule of law in this country,” she said. “He who has the power makes his own laws.”

Turabi was briefly detained last year following a daring attack on the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman by the Darfuri Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which he has denied all links to.

Meanwhile, Bashir spent the day in Darfur rallying supporters against the ICC indictment. He reportedly waved a sword at the crowd and threatened to expel aid workers and diplomats deemed unsupportive of his presidency.

“Whoever deviates, we will not let them stay, whether a voluntary organization, an envoy, a diplomatic mission, or a security force,” he said, according to The New York Times.

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