On February 10, el-Tahir Abu Haja, media adviser to the chairman of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, denied that recent arrests of pro-democracy movement members were politically motivated.
A day earlier, Sudanese authorities detained Wagdi Salih, a prominent member of the Empowerment Removal Committee (ERC), and al-Tayeb Osman Youssef, the ERC’S secretary-general.
Security forces also detained Khalid Omer Youssif, secretary-general of of the Sudanese Congress Party (ScoP), during a meeting at the party’s headquarters in the capital Khartoum. Youssif was previously an ERC member.
Those arrested are critics of the military junta and members of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of unions and parties seeking a civilian government.
The arrest of the three men sparked criticism both at home and abroad. In response, Abu Haja claimed the arrests were made under regular procedure and in defense of political and civil freedoms in Sudan.
“The arrest of members of the Empowerment Removal Committee (ERC) was conducted on legal basis,” Abu Haja said.
That is false. In fact, the military junta has established a clear pattern of suppressing dissent and jailing critics since taking power last October, triggering deadly demonstrations and unleashing political turmoil.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported:
“Security forces in Sudan have repeatedly attacked or otherwise used excessive unnecessary force, including lethal force, against peaceful demonstrators in Khartoum. Following the October 25 military coup, numerous protests have taken place across the country, particularly in the capital.
“According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, security forces have killed 79 people, including a woman and nine children. On January 17 alone, there were seven reported killings of protesters by live ammunition, three of which Human Rights Watch documented. It was the second deadliest day since the coup.”
Following the latest ERC arrests, protesters marched toward the presidential palace in Khartoum, denouncing the arrests and military rule. More demonstrations took place in other cities.
The ERC is officially known as the “Committee for Dismantling the June 30 1989 Regime, Removal of Empowerment and Corruption and Recovery of Public Funds.” Former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok established the ERC in 2019 following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades.
After his arrest, Salih tweeted that he and al-Tayeb Youssef had been charged with corruption under Article 177-2 of the penal code, related to the misappropriation of entrusted funds, and had been transferred to Omdurman Prison.
According to the Sudan Tribune, a digital news portal, authorities ordered the arrest of FFC leaders amid an accelerating crackdown.
Sudan Tribune added that that Salih and Youssif were part of an FFC delegation that met with members of a United Nations mission to discuss a road map for the future. Salih reportedly told the U.N. mission that Sudan’s coup leaders were hindering progress.
“The coalition’s vision is based on ... a new constitutional declaration clearly stating that the institutions of the transitional authority are entirely civilian,” Salih told the U.N. mission.
A source in Sudan’s public prosecution office told Al Jazeera news that 206 people who are either members of the ERC or connected to it are wanted by the authorities. The source added that those arrested may face the death penalty.
Moaz Hadrah, a lawyer and member of the detainees’ defense committee, told Al Jazeera the accusations against the ERC members are malicious.
Yasir Arman, an FFC leader, called the arrests, which happened after the FFC delegation met with the U.N. mission officials, political and illegal.
On February 9, Reuters, quoting a U.N. source, reported that the world body had concluded its first round of consultations with Sudanese parties seeking to salvage the democratic process. The U.N. mission is expected to issue a summary of its findings next week.
Samir Sheikh Idris, a spokesman for an activist lawyers' group, told Reuters that some 2,000 people connected to the demonstrations were detained and released on bail, while 150 remain in prison for their political activities but have not been charged.
On February 10, the U.S. State Department, Britain, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the European Union issued a joint statement voicing concern over the a “recent pattern of arrests and detentions of civil society activists, journalists, and humanitarian workers” across Sudan.
The statement called for the immediate release of those unjustly detained.
The pro-democracy movement emerged in Sudan in 2018, as the country faced a deep economic crisis. Protesters took to the streets to demand that al-Bashir step down from power. The military intervened and removed al-Bashir’s regime.
That was followed by a standoff between the military-ruled government, chaired by Gen. Burhan, and protesters demanding civilian rule.
In 2019, civilian and military leaders signed a Constitutional Declaration as a roadmap to a civilian government. But Burhan took power in October 2021 following competing pro-army and pro-government protests. The junta arrested Prime Minister Hamdok and his cabinet.
One of Burhan’s first decisions after the power grab was to freeze the ERC, restore all the assets it seized from former bureaucrats in al-Bashir’s government, and investigate ERC members.
Upon his release, Hamdok resumed negotiations with the army, and they reached a power-sharing deal. But protesters again took to the streets, rejecting the deal and demanding full civilian rule.
On January 3, Hamdok resigned amid another wave of mass protests. He said that efforts to reach a consensus had gone nowhere and that he had done his best to stop the Sudan from "sliding towards disaster." That left the country under the military’s total control.