Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir has appeared in public for the first time since his overthrow by the military following months of mass protests against his 30-year-long autocratic rule.
Dressed in a white robe and turban, the toppled leader was seen on Sunday as he was escorted under heavy guard from a maximum security prison in Sudan’s capital Khartoum to the prosecutor’s office.
There, prosecutorsinformedhim he faced charges of “possessing foreign currency and acquiring suspicious and illicit wealth”, according to the official SUNA news agency.
He was given one week to raise objections, questioned on additional unspecified corruption charges, and taken back to Kobar prison.
If al-Bashir does not appeal, he could appear in court as early as next week, Sudan’s acting Chief Prosecutor Alwaleed Sayed Ahmedsaidon Saturday.
In Khartoum, the moves against the 75-year-old former president triggered derision and scepticism from critics who dismissed it as an attempt by Sudan’s new military rulers to deflect attention from a recentbloody crackdownon protesters, as well as its reluctance to cede power to a civilian-led transitional administration.
They also questioned the likelihood of al-Bashir receiving a fair trial inSudanor being held accountable for the most egregious of charges against him.
The former leader, who came to power in a coup in 1989, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide relating to abuses by Sudanese forces in the country’s Darfur region between 2003 and 2008.
Instead, al-Bashir’s first trial looks set to be on charges of violating a decree he imposed in February as part of an effort to quell anti-government protests sparked by rising food prices and a currency crisis.
At the time, as protests gathered pace across the country, al-Bashir had imposed a state of emergency and made it illegal to carry more than $3,000 in foreign currency.
But shortly after he was overthrown on April 11, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which replaced the former leader, said security forces had seized more than $113m worth in cash in three currencies from his residence.
If al-Bashir is found guilty of violating the emergency decree, he could face at least 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors have also opened other criminal probes against al-Bashir, including on charges of money laundering, financing “terrorism” as well as “ordering the killing of protesters” – the latter is an offence that carries the death penalty in Sudan.
Although protesters had demanded al-Bashir be held accountable for alleged abuses during his tenure, the timing of the upcoming trial has left many suspicious.
Jalela Khamis Kuku, a human rights activist, said the TMC was trying to deflect attention from protesters’ call for accountability over the June 3 raid on a protest camp outside the military headquarters.
The sit-in began on April 6, days before al-Bashir’s toppling and continued as protesters stuck to demands for civilian rule. But as talks over the composition of an interim body faltered, soldiers opened fire on the sit-in.
According to a Sudanese doctors’ group, more than 100 people were killed in the June 3 raid. Some of their bodies were disposed of in the Nile River, hundreds were wounded and dozens of women raped.
However, the Health Ministry put the death toll at 61.
“The priority has to be for the lives lost because the whole country is mourning,” Kuku said via phone from Khartoum.
“Those who were responsible for killing protesters since December should be held accountable. Those who were responsible for the deaths of the protesters at the sit-in must be held accountable, the military council should name those who gave the orders, that’s what we should focus on now.”
The TMC initially denied trying to disperse the protest camp, but on Thursday admitted that it had ordered the removal of the protest camp. The violence occurred after some soldiers “deviated” from the plan, said Shams al-Din Kabashi, a TMC spokesman.
He acknowledged that “violations happened” without elaborating.
Waleed Madibo, the founder of the think-tank Sudan Policy Forum, said the move against al-Bashir was also aimed at distracting the international community.
He added that al-Bashir was unlikely to receive a fair trial under the TMC.
“The whole process is not independent and is not credible,” he said. “Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the ICC, so rather than taking him to court for having killed or influencing the killing of half a million human beings, you’re taking him to court for having embezzled [tens of millions of dollars].”
Meanwhile, al-Bashir’s summons to the prosecutor’s office also came as Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the TMC, appeared to walk back on previous agreements made with protest leaders on the structure of an interim government.
“Our problem with the [protest alliance] is that they want to form an unelected parliament to eradicate us,” he said, referring to an earlier deal in which the military and protesters agreed to a three-year transition period, governed by a civilian-led executive council and a civilian-led legislative body.
“We’re ready to form a technocratic government. But our problem is that the parliament will not be an elected one,” he told supporters in Khartoum.
The general, who is commonly known as Hemeti, is also the commander of the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Force, which protesters accuse of being behind the violence at the sit-in.
Hemeti promised the death penalty for those involved in the attacks.
“We are working hard to take those who did this to the gallows,” said the general.