(CAIRO) — The Sudanese army will not extradite deposed President Omar al-Bashir but will put him on trial at home, the military said Friday as it defended its seizure of power after ousting the longtime ruler.
The ouster of al-Bashir after months of escalating street protests against his rule has sparked calls for him to be handed over to the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for his deadly campaign against insurgents in Darfur.
In the Darfur conflict in the 2000s, up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million driven from their homes by militias backed by al-Bashir’s government. Notably, the military council that has taken power after removing al-Bashir is led by Defense Minister Awad ibn Ouf, a veteran establishment insider who himself is under sanctions by the United States for his alleged role in supporting those militias.
Protesters have rejected the military’s announcement that it will rule the country for the next two years, calling it a continuation of al-Bashir’s regime. Thousands defied a curfew imposed by the military and continued a week-old sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in Khartoum, vowing they would not end their street campaign until a civilian transitional government is created.
A day after his removal, al-Bashir was in custody, a senior figure in the military council, Col. Gen. Omar Zein Abedeen, told reporters. But he declined to provide more details or say where the president of 30 years is being held. He also confirmed that top government members, including the vice president and al-Bashir’s associates, are under arrest but didn’t give any names.
To hand over the 75-year-old al-Bashir for trial would be “an ugly mark on Sudan … even rebels carrying weapons, we don’t extradite them,” said Zein Abedeen, who has been tasked by the military to lead a dialogue with Sudan’s political parties.
He left open the possibility that a future civilian government in Sudan could extradite al-Bashir to the court in The Hague, Netherlands.
Speaking at a press conference aired live on state TV and flanked by other uniformed officers, Zein Abedeen insisted the army has no ambition to hold the reins of power for long. He said the two year period was the maximum and said the military would rule only as long as need, suggesting it could hand over power earlier.
“This was not a coup,” but a “tool of change,” Zein Abedeen said. “We came … to guide the country forward.”
But protest organizers rejected the military’s assurances, calling them “deception and farce.”
The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the four months of demonstrations against al-Bashir, said the “coup leaders … are not eligible to bring change,” and repeated demands for the “immediate handover of power to a civilian traditional government.”
After arresting al-Bashir, the military suspended the constitution, dissolved the government, imposed a nighttime curfew and declared a three-month state of emergency. That has raised concerned it could disperse the giant protest at the gates of its headquarters by force, sparking new violence.
Zein Abedeen did not indicate at the press conference that the army would move against the protesters, making instead vague remarks about how he would “come out … sit on the grass” and talk with the demonstrators.
The state news agency SUNA said ibn Ouf planned to meet with political factions and leaders of the protest movement later Friday and that he was holding off with announcing the full makeup of the military council pending the consultations.
At the sit-in, the mood among the crowds was festive. Some protesters brought in mattresses, fans and even air conditioners, while others swept the streets to keep them clean, signaling they intend to stay long term. As thousands of Muslim worshippers lined up in the street to hold prayers, Christian protesters held blankets over them to shade them from the sun in a show of solidarity.
Men and women in the crowds beat drums, clapped and chanted, “Down with military rule” and “We won’t be silent until ibn Ouf is out.” Dozens unfurled a meters-long Sudanese flag and marched around the square, chanting, “Freedom.”
The U.S. State Department has called on the Sudanese military to “follow the will of the people” and “commit to the speedy handover to civilian rule.”
On Friday, the commander of Sudan’s feared Rapid Support Force, a paramilitary force, said it would not “accept any solutions rejected by the Sudanese people” and for “opening the door for dialogue” with the protest movement.
The force draws its origins from the Janjaweed militias that were implicated in the Darfur genocide. Mohammed Hamadati, the commander, said talks are needed so Sudan would “avoid slipping into chaos.”
Sudan analyst and researcher Eric Reeves described the military’s ouster of the longtime president as a “palace coup with al-Bashir as scapegoat.”
“The three-month state of emergency is a clear indication that they intend to crush the uprising in this time,” he said of the Sudanese military.