As demonstrators in Sudan plan to return to the streets on Sunday for mass rallies dubbed the “millions march“, the country’s ruling military council has warned protest and opposition groups that they will be held responsible for any deaths or damage.
“We warn of the seriousness of the crisis our country is going through,” the Transitional Military Council (TMC) said in a statement on Saturday carried by state news agency SUNA.
The TMC said it held the Freedom and Change alliance, which is leading the protest movement, “fully responsible for any spirit that is lost in this march, or any damage or harm to citizens or state institutions”.
The alliance has called on protesters to take to the streets of Khartoum and other cities on Sunday to demand the TMC cede power to civilians and justice for all the lives lost at the hands of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) during a bloody dispersal on June 3 of a protest camp outside the military’s headquarters in the capital.
A doctors group linked to the protest movement say at least 120 people were killed in the crackdown, but officials have cited a death toll of 61.
On Friday, Amnesty International issued a statement demanding the TMC guarantee the safety of protesters on Sunday.
“The horrific unprovoked use of lethal and unnecessary force against peaceful protesters as witnessed on 3 June must not be repeated this Sunday, or ever again,” Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo said.
Sunday’s rallies will also mark the 30th anniversary of the coup that brought long-time President Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989, toppling Sudan’s last elected government.
The TMC and the opposition movement have been wrangling for weeks over how to manage a transition towards elections following the military’s removal of al-Bashir on April 11 in the wake of months-long popular protests against his rule.
The deputy head of the TMC, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, on Saturday warned of “vandals” and a “concealed agenda” that he suggested might seek to take advantage of Sunday’s march.
Dagalo, who is better known as Hemeti and is also the head of the feared RSF, said the deployment of security forces and troops in Khartoum was aimed at “providing security for people, not for harassing them”.
“People are expecting the security forces to respond with violence but there’s no longer any fear and they’re prepared to walk towards any fire,” Ahmed Hadra, a protester who was jailed when the demonstrations began in December 2018, told Al Jazeera.
Naidoo, of Amnesty, said that since the crackdown on the sit-in, which had become the focal point of the protests against al-Bashir and the TMC, there had been “an alarming regression” on human rights.
“This includes an ongoing internet shutdown, attacks on the media and the refusal to allow opposition groups to organise public forums, as well as the continued dispersal of peaceful protesters using unnecessary and excessive force,” Naidoo said.
“This clampdown clearly points to the return of the repressive days associated with al-Bashir.”
For his part, Dagalo argued that the generals had no intention of holding on to power.
“The military council is just a guarantor,” he said. “We are saying we want a civilian government, a government of competences, of independents. This is not political talk …This is true.”
Blocking a press conference
Later on Saturday, protest organisers said RSF members had prevented their leaders from holding a press conference in Khartoum.
The alliance’s key group, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), had called for a media briefing on Saturday evening to unveil plans for Sunday’s rally but its effort was blocked by the RSF, protest leader Ahmed al-Rabie said.
“Before we could start the press conference, three vehicles from RSF, full of armed men, came to our building and told us not to hold the press conference,” Rabie said.
They “also ordered all the people there to leave the building”, he added.
Samahir El Mubarak, SPA spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the conference was halted abruptly and live broadcasting was also cut.
“They have taken over the SPA… they still remain over there. They are not allowing any form of activity to proceed, bearing in mind that internet services are being blocked.
“They’ve been trying to prevent all forms of communciation between the SPA and its members and SPA and the general public. It’s obvious that they are worried about tomorrow’s march but we’re confident … in the Sudanese people.”
A Sudanese journalist at the site confirmed that armed men had prevented him and other journalists from attending the briefing in Khartoum’s eastern district of Burri.
AU-Ethiopian meditation efforts
Negotiations between protesters and Sudan’s military rulers have made little progress since the bloody dispersal on the sit-in. In recent weeks, mediators led by the African Union(AU) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have been trying to broker a return to direct talks between the two sides.
On Friday, the TMC said a proposal submitted by the AU and Ethiopiawas suitable for the resumption of talks with the opposition.
The protest leaders have not announced their position regarding the joint proposal.
The opposition had supported an earlier Ethiopian proposal before the TMC had said the AU and Ethiopian efforts needed to be merged.
Separately on Saturday, the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) said the head of a teachers’ committee and a leading member of the FFC had been detained.
The military council did not immediately comment.
“We urge the international community to demand their immediate release. This move by the TMC is highly detrimental to confidence building at this crucial time,” said the SPA, which is part of the FFC and spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests.
The European Unionon Friday said the Sudanese people’s right to protest and express their views “is key” and supported the AU-Ethiopian mediation efforts.
David Shinn, a former US senior diplomat in Sudan, said the protesters’ struggle for democracy was at a critical juncture.
“It is very fragile,” he told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC.
“This is where organisations like the African Union and Ethiopia, which deserve great credit for moving this issue forward, come into play, in addition to the entire international community and the United States, putting pressure on the Transitional Military Council to take all of this seriously and to move forward with the democratic transition in Sudan, which is in the interest of everyone,” Shinn added.
“And also countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, which have been supporting the military council, that need to get on board with this programme.”