Khartoum - The arrest of Sudan’s veteran opposition leader al-Sadiq al-Mahdi on May 17 has cast doubts on the seriousness of President Omar al-Bashir’s promised "national dialogue" to end the country’s chronic instability, and highlighted the growing clout of its paramilitary forces.
Ummah party suspended its participation in the national dialogue in reaction to the arrest and called for "mobilisation". Al-Mahdi served two terms as Sudan’s prime minister before being deposed in the 1989 Islamist coup led by Bashir.
He was taken from his house in Omdurman at an early hour on Saturday by three men representing the office of the state security prosecutor, his daughter and political activist Rabah al-Sadiq told Al Jazeera.
I think it goes further than that. It’s a calculated and meditated setback to the national dialogue.
Prior to his arrest and subsequent incarceration at Kober Prison north of the capital Khartoum, al-Mahdi was charged on May 15, by the National Intelligence and Security Services, with "disseminating false news" and "defamation" after he accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces of committing abuses, including rape and murder, against civilians in the country’s conflict-ridden region of Darfur, at a press conference on May 7.
One week later, al-Mahdi appeared before the state security prosecutor to answer for the charges. He confirmed that he accused RSF of committing "war crimes against civilians in Darfur". NISS later added to the charge against al-Mahdi: "undermining the constitutional system".
The 6,000-strong RSF was established in late August 2013 to help Sudan’s exhausted army and the NISS to battle the country’s fighters in the marginalised regions of Darfur and South Kordofan.
RSF is said to have scored a chain of victories against the rebels but it earned notoriety for committing abuses against civilians. In February, it was blamed for a number of assaults targeting merchants in El-Obeid in Kordofan. It was also accused in March of allegedly kidnapping and raping displaced girls in southern Darfur.
But the fact that al-Mahdi’s arrest came on the heels of his criticism of the increasingly influential RSF does not tell the whole story, according to Rabah al-Sadiq.
She views her father’s detention as part of a wider trend within Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party to renege on its promises of a "national dialogue" to address the country’s political and economic challenges following the secession of South Sudan.
"I think it goes further than that. It’s a calculated and meditated setback to the national dialogue," she said.
Analysts point out that al-Mahdi's arrest could be an indication of an internal split within the ruling party between pro-national dialogue members and the more hawkish elements in the political and security sectors.
Al-Mahdi was one of the opposition leaders who responded favourably to Bashir’s invitation to opposition parties on January 27 to join a "national dialogue". Other opposition forces, including the Sudanese Communist Party, declined the invitation saying the NCP must first create a conducive environment for dialogue by guaranteeing general freedoms and putting an end to the wars.
Many opposition leaders remain sceptical of the NCP’s promise to allow general freedoms despite the relative opening up of political space that saw a number of opposition parties being able to hold rallies without the usual harassment from authorities.
And not without good reason, Journalists for Human Rights, a local advocacy group, reported on May 15 that security authorities have ordered local newspapers to stop reporting on corruption cases and activities of the RSF.
On March 11, one student was killed during clashes between security forces and students at Khartoum University. In the eyes of Rabah, "It’s all connected."