It's a balmy evening as couples stroll the Nile River. Clasping each other at the waist, young lovers whisper sweet nothings into their partners' ears and sometimes even sneak kisses.
At one time, these unmarried Muslim couples would have risked lashings with a hippopotamus-skin whip - or worse - for such public affection. But for the first time since the 1989 Islamic revolution imposed strict social rules in Sudan, the government appears to be relaxing enforcement of sharia, or Islamic law.
"Public floggings are down overall by 75 percent in the last year," says Hamid Karar, a senior public order officer here in Khartoum, a seat of Islamic power.
Amputations of hands and feet, and enforcement of strict dress codes have also been reduced across Sudan by nearly 50 percent, say Sudanese human rights activists and government officials.
"We've been wrongly criticized for the harshness of our sharia laws in the past, and they are now less strict than ever," says Sayed al-Khateeb, a senior sociologist and director of a government think tank, the Center for Strategic Studies.
Mr. Khateeb, who studied at George Washington University in the US, says one place the trend is playing out is in courtrooms. Prosecuting judges are insisting on an increasingly high "burden of proof," he says. He also points out that in this country of 33 million people and 19 major ethnic groups, judges are increasingly willing to interpret Islam to fit the "special needs of Sudan."
To be sure, Islamic law itself has not changed. Here, as in countries throughout the Middle East, sharia advocates the use of public floggings, jail terms, and amputations to enforce public order. Beheadings, common in neighboring Arab states, have never been used in Sudan.
Critics charge that the appearance of the relaxing of sharia is just a whitewash.
"The government wants to convince the international community that it has changed for the better," says Mohamed Hasan Daoud, secretary general of the Sudan Human Rights Organization, which has offices in London and Cairo.
Cooperation with powerful oil firms in Canada and China has already helped Khartoum exploit extensive oil reserves in the south, now yielding an estimated $500 million in annual revenues for the state. Government officials readily admit they are willing and ready to use this money to bolster their fight against a southern rebellion that fields some 100,000 anti-Khartoum fighters.
Meanwhile, Sudan has seized its fresh election to the UN Human Rights Commission this month to accuse its chief critic, Washington - which lost its own seat on the commission - of being out of touch "with mainstream human rights issues."
"The US, which tries to force its human rights agenda on others, should think long and hard about why it lost its seat and we gained ours," says Mustafa Othman Ismail, Sudan's minister of external relations.
Mr. Daoud insists that Khartoum is now applying a double standard in Sudan: enforcing the Sharia severely against mostly animist and Christian southerners, while easing up on northerners loyal to the regime.
Daoud points to the Nelson Mandela refugee camp at the edge of town, where, for non-Muslims, nothing much has changed.
In a collapsing burlap tent, covered with cardboard ripped from humanitarian aid boxes, Dinka tribesmen complain that their womenfolk are still taken to unsanitary and jam-packed prisons for the crime of making homemade wine. They say that public floggings carried out by northern policemen against refugees have doubled at stations near the camp.
"I've been flogged three times already this year," says Langor Mewen, a refugee from the town of Waw in the south, who has lost both a mother and a brother in Sudan's grinding 18-year-old war. The Dinka tribe, mostly animist, makes up some 15 percent of Sudan's multiethnic population.
Amnesty International last month urged the Sudanese government to investigate the "shootings, beatings and arrests by Sudanese riot police" against Christian groups earlier this month. The London-based rights group said at least nine people, including children, had been flogged under sharia for protesting the government's cancellation of an Easter rally.
Sudan's legal system is of increasing concern to the international community, which appears to want, on the one hand, to exploit the country's oil reserves, but on the other, to protect human rights.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, (CSIS) a Washington-based think tank, has advocated a new effort to create what it calls "one Sudan" with "two systems." This would allow for sharia law in the predominantly Islamic north and a Western-style law for the country's largely non-Muslim south.
But there is major opposition to the CSIS proposal. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday told Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, at a meeting in Egypt, that it was keen to prevent partition. Egypt wants to avoid having to deal with two governing parties on the vital issue of Nile water resources.
Northern Islamists working to improve human rights across Sudan, including Daoud, also oppose the idea as flawed. "What would the southerners living in the North gain from this, or ... the northerners living in the south? If this is to be one country, we need one system of laws, not a double standard."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor