Sudan protesters defy ban on rallies amid crackdown
CAIRO (AP) — Sudanese protesters on Tuesday defied their embattled president’s ban on unauthorized public gatherings, with hundreds rallying across the country to call for his resignation.
The protests came despite a state of emergency imposed Friday by President Omar al-Bashir in response to more than two months of demonstrations against his nearly three-decade rule. Nationwide protests erupted in December, initially over rising prices and shortages but quickly turned to calls for the autocratic al-Bashir’s ouster.
Tuesday’s rallies were called by the Sudanese Professional Association, an umbrella of independent professional unions that has spearheaded two-and-a-half months of protests.
Video footage shows demonstrators, mostly women, marching in the streets of Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman. Demonstrations were also reported in the city of Atbara and the country’s troubled Darfur region.
On Monday, al-Bashir issued decrees giving security forces powers to search buildings, restrict movements of people and public transportation, arrest individuals suspected of crimes related to the state of emergency and seize assets or property during investigations, according to the state-run SUNA news agency.
The decrees include a ban on unauthorized trading and stockpiling of fuel products and prison terms for those traveling with more than $3,000 in cash or 150 grams (5.3 ounces) of gold.
The unions said the state of emergency was unconstitutional and that they would challenge it in courts. “We have one option, which is to win,” they said, calling for fresh protests against al-Bashir.
“The ban is a desperate decision aiming at terrifying the protesters and their families,” said rights lawyer Amal el-Zain. “It may curb the uprising but will not stop it.”
Activists said Tuesday that authorities lifted a block on popular social media platforms that have been used to organize and broadcast the protests.
They said users of the three main telecommunications operators in the country — Zain, MTN and Sudani — now have access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp after nearly two months of restrictions during which users could only access the internet through a virtual private network, or VPN.
The government had blocked access to social media platforms shortly after protests erupted in Dec. 19, according to Salah Abdallah, the head of the country’s National Intelligence and Security agency.
There was no immediate comment from authorities on the lifting of social media blocks and a government spokesman did not respond to phone calls and messages seeking comment.
The current wave of unrest is marked by the most serious protests against al-Bashir in nearly three decades of rule. Previous rulers faced with mass protests often declared a state of emergency, which means deploying more troops - with fewer restraints on their behavior - and erecting multiple roadblocks in an effort to control the civilian population’s movements.
Al-Bashir himself has repeatedly declared a state of emergency in several provinces since 2011 in a bid to quell anti-government protests.
Along with imposing the state of emergency on Friday, which is to last a year, al-Bashir disbanded the federal government and replaced all state governors with senior army officers. The order also placed heavier restrictions on the media and opposition parties.
A joint statement on Tuesday by the U.S., Britain, Norway and Canada said they were “deeply concerned” about al-Bashir’s recent decisions to declare the state of emergency, impose a ban on unauthorized public gatherings, and appoint military and security members to senior government positions.
“The return to military rule does not create a conducive environment for a renewed political dialogue or credible elections,” the statement said.
The moves by al-Bashir, who seized power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, further concentrated power in his hands and set the stage for a bloody crackdown on protests, said the International Crisis Group.
The group urged the US and the European Union not to normalize relations with Khartoum if it “gives its forces carte blanche to kill and detain protesters.”
Also on Tuesday, al-Bashir reshuffled his military command, appointing Lt. Gen. Essam el-Din Mubarak as state minister in the Defense Ministry. The SUNA news agency reported that al-Bashir also appointed Lt. Gen. Mohammed Osman el-Hussein to head ground forces.
Al-Bashir insists that only elections can bring change. His current term expires in 2020. He has repeatedly promised not to run again and cannot do so without amending the constitution.
Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee tasked with amending the constitution to scrap presidential term limits canceled its meetings, a move that appeared to be the only political concession by al-Bashir so far.
The unrest coincides with worsening economic woes that saw a currency devaluation, price hikes, fuel shortages and a steep rise in the price of bread, a main fare for most Sudanese.
Activists say at least 57 people have been killed in the protests. The government’s latest tally stands at 30 killed, but figures have not been updated in weeks.