As Omar al-Bashir sat in a metal defendant’s cage for the second time this week, questions about whether the former Sudanese president’s corruption trial was cosmetic or a meaningful step forward in the country’s long struggle for justice and accountability were being asked.
Al-Bashir has been held since he was deposed by security forces on April 11 in the face of mass protests against his authoritarian three-decade rule.
The 75-year-old, who is being held in Khartoum’s notorious Kober jail where generations of political dissidents languished under his rule, has been charged with illicit possession of foreign currency and receiving gifts in an unofficial matter. In April, Sudan’s ruling military said more than $113m worth of cash in three currencies had been seized from al-Bashir’s house.
The former president is pleading not guilty, and his 96-strong legal defence team are optimistic the corruption charges will be dropped.
On the first day of his trial on Monday, a state investigator said that al-Bashir had admitted to receiving tens of millions in cash from Saudi royals. His lawyers maintain that the former ruler did not personally benefit from the money.
Al-Bashir appeared in court on Saturday for the second hearing of the trial, which will continue on August 31.
In May, al-Bashir also was charged with incitement of and involvement in the killing of protesters during the anti-government demonstrations, while prosecutors have also ordered him questioned over alleged money laundering and financing terrorism.
But Sudanese authorities have refused to deliver al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which in 2009 and 2010 issued warrants for his arrest over alleged atrocities during the conflict in the western region of Darfur.
Amid persistent demands for accountability during a period where Sudan navigates a “complex” transition towards civilian rule, analysts say the corruption trial serves as a diversion from the unreformed judiciary that is still run by al-Bashir’s former allies.
“This [trial] is not something that should be regarded as real steps taken towards justice and accountability,” Quscondy Abdulshafi, a Sudanese independent researcher and conflict analyst, told Al Jazeera.
He pointed to the fact that, last September, al-Bashir promoted hundreds of judges to senior judiciary positions, including the high court – according to the presidency’s website, the number of judges appointed to the Supreme Court was raised from 300 to 500.
“The judicial system is screwed up,” Abdulshafi said. “The judges that were appointed were most loyal party affiliates,” he added. “The question of the court’s independence … is strong.”
Two days after al-Bashir first appeared in court, Sudan’s military generals and protest leaders formed a joint transitional body, which will rule the country for a little over three years until elections can be held.
The 11-member sovereign council is made up of six civilians and five members of the armed forces. It will be headed for the first 21 months by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who had previously led the now-disbanded Transitional Military Council that ran the country after the toppling of al-Bashir. A civilian leader will take over for the remaining 18 months.
Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group, said it is “very notable” that the current charges against al-Bashir relate to money that was found in his possession.
“I think we have to be careful and see this court trial as a mixed message from the military junta, which still controls most of the power in Sudan,” Mutiga told Al Jazeera.
He said that while it is a positive step to see al-Bashir behind bars, given the fact that the former president seemed secure in his position only a few months ago, a healthy dose of scepticism is needed.
“Effectively, the people wielding the real power in Sudan remain [al-Bashir’s] key allies, including the generals who themselves have been accused of committing crimes and have also benefitted from his rule immensely,” he said.
According to Abdulshafi, while there is no doubt the Sudanese people want to see the beginning of a real process of justice, “the old system and transitional government want a [type of] justice that will exonerate some of their leaders – a redacted justice”.
For Mutiga, the 2011 uprising in neighbouring Egypt served as an example of the “mixed transition” that occurs when there is no clean break from the former ruling order.
“We saw [former President] Hosni Mubarak and his sons [being] given very comfortable accommodation in prison during their trial,” he said. “Eventually, it was the first democratically elected President [Mohamed Morsi] who ended up dying in prison, while Mubarak lives a comfortable life at home.”
Regarding Sudan’s transitional phase, Mutiga said there will be positive steps as well as setbacks.
“I’m not sure we should take too seriously the commitment of the junta in prosecuting al-Bashir because of the fact that Sudan still does not have a reformed judiciary system,” he said.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a politics professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said justice during the transitional period was a political affair, not merely a judicial one.
“It has to come in the context of a pact between all political forces, including members of the former regime, who must agree to relinquish power as part of the deal,” he said.
Given the fact that many establishment insiders remain entrenched within the government, El-Affendi said that proceeding with legal action and purges without a political dialogue was a “recipe for civil war – and worse, as we are seeing in Egypt, Libya and Iraq.”
ICC versus Sudanese laws
Among the charges that al-Bashir appears unlikely to face are those for the alleged atrocities in Darfur, for which he has become the first-ever sitting head of state to be wanted by the ICC.
An estimated 300,000 people were killed in the war that started in 2003, and as many as 2.7 million people were forced from their homes after ethnic minority groups took up arms against al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government, which they accused of discrimination and neglect.
“I do not believe that the military or security services are willing to see the trial of Bashir turn into an open-ended discussion of the serious crimes – many of which might have been war crimes or torture – conducted under the 30 years of al-Bashir’s rule since 1989,” said Alden Young, director of the Africana Studies Program and assistant professor of history at Drexel University in Philidelphia.
With the armed forces occupying a big role in the decision-making of the transitional government, Young believes that al-Bashir will not be extradited to the ICC.
“I think the point of the trial in Sudan is to prove that Sudanese justice can deal with the question of al-Bashir and that there is no need for international bodies to become involved,” he said.
At the same time, “the format of the trial shows just how tricky the question of justice in Sudan will be, due to its desire to keep the scope limited,” Young said.
Whether the former leader will be sentenced will in part depend on the political direction of the country and which elements gain control of the state, he added.
Under Sudanese law, if a defendant is found guilty under the charges of killing protesters, the punishment includes the death penalty.
Given these harsher conditions, El-Affendi suggested there were reasons to believe that al-Bashir might prefer to be tried by the ICC rather than in Khartoum.
“Al-Bashir and his close associates might, like [Libya’s] Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, prefer to be sent to The Hague rather than tried at home,” El-Affendi said. “They would be right.”