(Bloomberg) — When Bahaa El-Din Nouri was abducted from a Khartoum market by armed men, his family searched for him for five frantic days. They found his battered body at a hospital. He had become the latest victim of torture.
Nouri wasn’t a prominent activist, just a rank-and-file supporter of the revolution in Sudan that ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. But the 41-year-old’s brutal death last month at a jail run by the country’s most powerful militia sparked protests and exposed abuses by the remnants of the regime’s vast security apparatus.
In a world confronted by turmoil from the coronavirus to the transition of power in Washington, the democratic struggles of a place whose economy is only marginally larger than that of Wyoming may look like an aside. The country in Africa’s northeast, though, could provide a litmus test for a new approach to U.S. foreign policy under Joe Biden after he pledged a tougher line on overseas human rights abuses.
Rebuilding ties with Sudan, a pariah in the West for much of Bashir’s three-decade rule, would potentially give the U.S. a diplomatic triumph in a geopolitical hotspot and boost efforts against global militant groups.
The two countries last week set up the financing of as much as $1 billion of American exports, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari inked an agreement in Khartoum for Sudan to join Arab states in starting to normalize ties with Israel.
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Sudan’s pro-democracy movement, meanwhile, has complained of harassment and detention of protesters by the authorities in recent weeks. The Sudanese Professionals Association, a group of trade unions, is calling for an end to impunity for security personnel and the closing of detention centers.
The situation is “an extension of the status quo during the former regime,” said Yosra Akasha, a program coordinator at the SIHA Network of human rights activists. The policies of previous U.S. administrations doesn’t give much hope there’ll be pressure for change, she said.
Yet the question remains whether the revolution in Sudan can turn into a watershed for stability in a country where the feared military still wields so much power.
The transitional government in Sudan is an uneasy coalition of civilians who are supposed to fulfill the democratic dreams of the uprising and generals accused of trying to preserve the army’s privileged position. Tensions have flared over the military’s role in foreign policy and the economy.
The Rapid Support Forces, a militia with roots in the war-torn western region of Darfur, has emerged since Bashir’s fall as perhaps Sudan’s most disciplined and—despite a concerted PR campaign—most feared armed organization.
The RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, is already staking out a political role as deputy of the country’s sovereign council, which has quasi-presidential powers. His group, though, is widely blamed for a mid-2019 crackdown that killed over 100 protesters and is still being officially probed.
It was at an RSF prison in the Khartoum district of Bahri that Nouri died on Dec. 20. The RSF has said it arrested senior officers and handed them over for prosecution. “We are determined to achieve our rights and prosecute those criminals,” said Nouri’s brother, Mohammed.
Nouri’s death came shortly before that of another man, Ezz El-Din Ali Hamid. He had been accused of robbery and detained for a week at a police station in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city. Just after his release, he died at a health facility; the police said he’d been tortured in custody and those responsible were arrested.
Sudan’s security and defense council, which comprises military and civilian leaders, has expressed its regret over the deaths and attributed them to individual behavior. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was chosen by the protest movement, said on Jan. 1 the cabinet had finally signed the international convention against torture.
Such pledges might signal a new openness and accountability, but human-rights advocates are skeptical that Sudan’s apparatus can be tamed. That’s even as the United Nations prepares a new mission for the country that’s supposed to support the growth of democracy and the rule of law.
Hamdok had hailed draft legislation finally passed by the U.S. Congress this month pledging to support a civilian-led democratic transition in Sudan that respects human rights. Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Salih didn’t respond to calls seeking comment on the current situation.
“The Horn of Africa is certainly a place that challenges the balance between values and interests in U.S. policy,” said Cameron Hudson, an ex-State Department official and analyst at the Atlantic Council.