Omar al-Bashir could face the death penalty if convicted of orchestrating for the 1989 coup that put him in power for 30 years.
(African Stand) — Omar al-Bashir, the authoritarian former ruler of Sudan ousted amid a popular pro-democracy uprising last year, has gone on trial in Khartoum on charges of orchestrating the military coup that brought him to power more than three decades ago.
The trial of Bashir, who has been held in detention since being convicted of money laundering and corruption in December, comes at a time of massive change in the country of more than 40 million people.
Bashir is in the dock with 10 military personnel and six civilians, including two former vice-presidents, ex-ministers, and governors. The 76-year-old could face the death penalty if convicted.
All are accused of having plotted the coupon 30 June 1989, when the army arrested Sudan’s democratically elected political leaders, suspended parliament and other state bodies, closed the airport and announced the takeover on the radio.
Bashir stayed in power for 30 years before being overthrown on 11 April last year after several months of unprecedented street demonstrations.
The consequences of his dramatic fall were underlined this year when Sudan’s new government pledged to hand him over to the international criminal court (ICC) to face trial on war crimes and genocide charges related to the Darfur conflict, which left 300,000 people dead and millions displaced in a scorched earth campaign against a 2003 insurgency.
There are few examples of leaders on the continent who came to power through violence facing legal process after their deposition – though some argue that the real mastermind of the coup was the Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, who died in 2016.
“This trial will be a warning to anyone who tries to destroy the constitutional system. This will safeguard Sudanese democracy. In this way we hope to bring an end to the era of putsches in Sudan,” said Moaz Hadra, one of the lawyers who led the push to bring the case to court.
Hadra told Agence France-Presse that the accused was charged with offences including under chapter 96 of the 1983 penal code, which had been abolished by Bashir and which carries the death penalty for attempting to destroy the constitutional order.
Sudan has had three coups d’etat since gaining independence from Britain in 1956.
Defence lawyers said Bashir and the others would face “a political trial” held “in a hostile environment on the part of the judicial system against the defendants”.
“This trial is aimed at the Islamic movement and its sole purpose is to present it as a terrorist movement, but we have prepared our defence and we will prove the contrary,” said Hashem al-Gali, one of the accused’s 150-strong legal team.
Gali argued that the events of 1989 were beyond the statute of limitations and should therefore no longer be dealt with by a court.
Hundreds of Bashir’s supporters gathered outside the court in Khartoum on Tuesday, shouting religious slogans and calling the former dictator “the lion of Africa”.
He entered the courtroom wearing white traditional clothes and a face mask, greeting supporters with a raised hand.
Proceedings were adjourned until 11 August for a review of social distancing and other hygiene measures, local TV networks reported.
The transitional government that took over after Bashir was toppled has faced stiff opposition from conservatives who thrived under the former regime, and there were protests when the new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, recently announced a raft of reforms.
These included a ban on female genital mutilation, the cancellation of prohibitions against religious conversion from Islam, and permission for non-Muslims to consume alcohol.
Sudan will also ban the practice of takfir, by which a Muslim can be declared an apostate by another and therefore subject to a potential death sentence.
Hamdok, who leads an administration of technocrats under an awkward, 39-month power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian groups, described “accelerated economic and social changes”.
Together, the measures signalled a decisive break with almost four decades of hardline policies under the former regime and its Islamist backers.
Sudan is facing acute economic problems and hopes to soon be taken off the US state department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a significant hurdle to receiving foreign aid and investment.