Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has taken a newly conciliatory tone with protesters, saying they are mostly young people with poor prospects, while also pledging to release detained journalists.
Al-Bashir’s remarks late on Wednesday appeared to be part of a new strategy to soften the government’s stance towards the protests, after the defence minister and prime minister made similar remarks in recent days.
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Sudan has been gripped by nationwide demonstrations since mid-December, with crowds taking to the streets initially over price increases. The protests quickly escalated into rallies against Bashir’s three-decade rule.
“Most of the protesters are young and there are factors that drove them to take to the streets, including inflation, which led to higher prices – and the limited job opportunities that don’t match the number of graduates,” al-Bashir told journalists invited to the presidential palace for a “discussion of recent events”.
He said all journalists who had been jailed in connection with the protests would be released. Activists estimate the number of journalists in prison at 16.
Al-Bashir also said young people’s anger was fuelled by the “wrong implementation” of Sudan’s public order laws.
These morality laws have been criticised by human rights organisations for restricting the freedom of women by, for example, making it a crime for a woman to wear trousers.
Activists say the decades-old law targets mainly women, often accusing them of “indecent dressing and immoral behaviour”.
Hefty punishments, including fines and jail terms, are imposed on women found guilty under the legislation.
According to some Sudanese women’s rights groups, more than 15,000 women were sentenced to flogging in 2016.
His remarks on Wednesday contrast dramatically to al-Bashir’s previous demand that the “rats go back to their holes”.
Al-Bashir, however, warned against destabilising the Sudanese state, saying “you can look at what happened in Libya,” which has been in a state of turmoil since a 2011 civil war led to the overthrow of long-standing ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
The protests, which started on December 19, were triggered by price increases, limits on cash withdrawals and other economic hardships but have since shifted focus to Bashir’s 30-year rule.
Police officers have used tear gas and occasionally live bullets to disperse the demonstrations.
Human rights activists say as many as 51 people have been killed. The government puts the death toll at 30, including two security personnel.
Reports say at least 1,000 people, including activists and student demonstrators, are being detained.
Defence Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf said on Monday young people caught up in the protests had “reasonable ambition”.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Moataz Moussa described calls for better living conditions as “legitimate”.
Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, which he denies.
He has also been lobbying for Sudan to be removed from a list of countries that the United States considers “state sponsors of terrorism”.
The listing has blocked the investment and financial aid that Sudan had been hoping would start flowing in when Washington lifted sanctions on the country in 2017, economists say.
Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit, causing spiralling inflation and a steep decline in the value of its currency.
Al-Bashir has often blamed the US for the country’s economic woes and he did so again on Wednesday.
“Sudan has been under embargo for a long time and from 1993 it is also under the US state sponsors of terrorism list,” he said.
He added that the CIA had for years acknowledged that Sudan was “cooperating” in fighting terrorism in the region.
“But we are still on this list,” he said.
“Because of this we don’t get finance from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank,” al-Bashir said.