For many people in Sudan, the conviction of 27 intelligence officers for the killing of a protestor is a step in the right direction, but it raises questions about Omar Al-Bashir's official role as the former President and Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Did he give specific orders or tacit approval for the beating and torture of citizens as part of an accepted interrogation policy?
Despite being removed from power on 11 April this year and his conviction for corruption, Al-Bashir ironically remains by far the most influential man in the country. The 75-year holds the key to the democratic, political and economic future of the nation he ruled for three decades. The future of Al-Bashir thus not only determines whether Sudan's coalition government stays together, but also drives the intensity of the counter-revolutionary forces and defines whether the country rejoins the international community or continues in isolation.
Al-Bashir is in a rehabilitation facility in the Koba Federal Prison but is not serving jail time. The trial on 14 December for corruption found him guilty as charged but stopped short of imposing a more severe sentence because of his age. Sudanese penal law states that convicted criminals over seventy should be detained under house arrest. When sentencing him, the judge said that Al-Bashir would not be sent home because he faced additional charges. These include the killing of protestors during the uprising against his rule, as well as the staging of the 1989 coup d'état that brought him to power. Investigators have continued to question Al-Bashir about his conduct during the demonstration that led to the death of more than 100 protestors. However, his lawyers say that the former president merely gave orders to unblock roads and disperse crowds to allow traffic to operate freely.
His trial was the first chapter in the process to create an independent judiciary and demonstrate to the world and to the people of Sudan the transitional government's determination to bring members of the former regime to account. In his three decades at the helm, Al-Bashir succeeded in removing circuit and high court judges who were not loyal to his ruling party, and created a security service that operated with impunity. However, the reformation of the criminal justice system has already encountered major problems, with arguments between the military and civilian elements of the new government about the appointment of the Chief Justice and Attorney General.
As the year ends, Al-Bashir's continued presence in Sudan is in contrast to his required detention under arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This is also a crucial factor in Sudan's future prosperity and bid for international acceptance. Not sending him to The Hague could destroy the fragile coalition between the military and the civilian government. The civilians say that he should be handed over, but the army has refused and threatened to call for an early election if the civilian bloc forces the issue.
The decision also affects, to some degree, the ongoing peace talks with armed groups who are making Al-Bashir's handover a condition of striking a peace deal. In addition, the support of international donors could be made contingent upon Al-Bashir facing trial for war crimes committed in Darfur. In a satellite video address, the last remaining rebel leader, Abdul-Wahid Nur, called for talks in Sudan between armed groups and the government but reiterated that Al-Bashir should be handed over to the ICC.
Ironically, eight months after the ouster of Al-Bashir and one year after the beginning of the protests that led to his removal, his supporters staged a counter-revolutionary demonstration on the day of his trial for corruption and have vowed to continue protesting. At the centre of their demands is the release of businessmen, academics and former politicians rounded up and jail on unspecified charges. They accuse the transitional government of holding at least 23 political prisoners, contrary to the constitutional agreement outlawing detention without trial. Those detained include Al-Bashir's second wife, Widad Babiker, wanted on charges of embezzlement and corruption.
Sudan's inability to elicit international help to redress the economic difficulties have fuelled the growing disquiet. It also highlights the fact that even after the removal of Al-Bashir from power eight months ago, his supporters feel that the tide is turning and his fate lies at the centre of Sudanese national politics. Whilst there is no doubt that the ruling transitional government remains extremely popular, the latest moves to ban unions, charitable groups and civil society groups registered under the last government have polarised public opinion.
Meanwhile, on the streets the economic conditions left by Al Bashir's rule still dominate the life of the average citizen in Sudan. Bread and fuel shortages continue to mean huge queues at bakeries and petrol stations. Moreover, in the past few weeks, the availability of public transport has almost reached crisis point. Minibus drivers have opted out of taking passengers, and are now using their vehicles to transport goods or petrol products. Gossip on social media blames Al-Bashir's supporters for paying drivers to take vehicles off the road.
Sudan stands at a crossroads in the wake of the recently approved budget that has left divisions and sharp disagreements in the civilian element of the transitional government. The $12.6 billion budget widened the deficit to $1.62 billion whilst reducing military spending by just two per cent. The thrust of the changes in the country remains an exercise to overturn the workings of Al-Bashir's regime and erase the memory of his rule. However, his presence in Sudan continues to be an irritation to most people, but an inspiration to others. As such, Al-Bashir's fate continues to be one of the most important and decisive factors in the prospects for Sudan in 2020 and beyond.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.