Sudan’s former president Omar Al Bashir was convicted on Saturday of corruption by a Khartoum court.
He was sentenced to two years in a rehabilitation facility, bringing to an end a four-month trial.
His conviction caps a year of monumental change in one of Africa’s largest countries, with Al Bashir’s 29-year regime removed last April following months of street protests that were met with deadly violence by the former president’s security forces.
The case is rooted in the discovery of nearly €700,000 (Dh2.57 million), more than $350,000 and five million Sudanese pounds at Al Bashir’s residence shortly after his removal from power on April 11.
The Sudanese Professionals’ Association, a central pillar of the protest movement that ended his time in office, welcomed yesterday’s verdict as a “moral and political conviction” against the former president and his regime.
He was charged with money laundering and illegal possession of foreign currency. His defence lawyers have maintained the money was part of a foreign donation that Al Bashir was spending on legitimate causes. They insist the cash was found at his office, not his home.
"The prerogatives of his office allow him to do that under the [interim] 2005 constitution," defence lawyer Omar Dafaa Allah told The National before the hearing. "His powers allow him to spend money outside official channels to resolve crises and shortages."
Saturday’s conviction was a quiet end to the career of a general-turned-president who came to national attention in the 1980s as a soldier who fought in the bushes and swamps of southern Sudan against anti-government rebels during a ruinous civil war that lasted more than two decades. He seized power in a 1989 military coup that toppled a freely elected but ineffective government.
Over the years, his National Salvation government promised so much but delivered so little.
It was on Al Bashir’s watch that Sudan lost a third of its territory and most of its oil wealth when the south seceded in 2011. With the oil gone, Sudan sank into its worst economic crisis in memory.
He has also overseen a dark era of oppression and corruption on a scale that had not been seen in Sudan’s modern history. Also under his rule, rebellions broke out in western Sudan and in regions south of the capital, Khartoum.
Al Bashir’s conviction and sentencing on Saturday effectively placed the Islamist leader under house arrest. His defence lawyers were uncertain as to how exactly the sentence would be served, with some suggesting he would be under house arrest at a site approved by the court or placed at a state-run rehabilitation facility.
However, Al Bashir is currently being questioned about his part in toppling the democratically elected government of prime minister Al Sadeq Al Mahdi in a 1989 military coup and his role in the shooting of protesters between December last year and his removal on April 11.
These are crimes that could, on conviction, result in capital punishment. But, given his age, the former president could instead face a significant extension of his stay in a rehabilitation facility, according to his lawyers.
Saturday’s hearing lasted a little more than an hour and took place at a judicial training centre in a Khartoum suburb, close to the city’s international airport. It was held in a makeshift courtroom amid tight security.
Scores of heavily armed troops and police, including commandos wearing ski masks, were stationed in and around the court. Al Bashir stood for over an hour in a small metal and wire defendant’s cage as the judge read the verdict.
Al Bashir faced justice at the centre rather than at a regular courthouse for security reasons. The facility is on a quiet street facing a large empty plot of land in the district of Arkaweet. Journalists allowed inside the courtroom were subjected to a thorough check and had to surrender their phones. The street outside the makeshift court was sealed off.
Al Bashir travelled to the hearing in a white SUV from Khartoum’s Kobar prison, where he has been held since his arrest in April. His vehicle was escorted by armed police and troops travelling in about 12 pickup trucks and SUVs. Many of the vehicles were fitted with heavy machineguns.
Elsewhere in Khartoum, several hundred supporters of the former president gathered, chanting slogans against the transitional government that came to office in August after a power-sharing deal between the generals who removed Al Bashir and pro-democracy groups behind the street protests.
The protests by Al Bashir’s supporters, dubbed by organisers as the “Green March,” prompted hundreds of army troops and police to seal off streets leading to the Nile-side presidential palace and the army headquarters. There were no reports of clashes.
Al Bashir’s defence lawyers walked out the courtroom in protest when the judge, Al Sadeq Abdul Rahman, referenced a case early in the rule of Al Bashir when a Sudanese man, Magdy Mahgoub, was arrested, tried and executed for the illegal possession of foreign currency. The execution created an uproar inside and outside Sudan.
The sentence was read out after the walkout.
“This is a disgraceful conviction,” defence lawyer Hashem Abu Bakr said outside the court. “We knew from the start that this was going to be a political trial. The judge has slaughtered justice and we will not recognise his ruling.”
Another defence lawyer, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Taher, said they planned to appeal against the conviction. “These are political charges designed to defame the president,” he said.
Al Bashir, whose second wife is also being investigated for corruption, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010 for crimes against humanity and genocide in the western Darfur region in the 2000s. That conflict left at least 300,000 people dead.
Sudan’s transitional authorities have said they had no intention of handing Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, preferring that he faces justice at home.