Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Wednesday acknowledged that a controversial public order law and the country’s deteriorating economic situation had fuelled anger among youths leading protests calling for him to step down.
Sudan has been rocked by nationwide demonstrations since December with angry crowds taking to the streets, initially over a government decision to triple the price of bread.
The protests quickly escalated into rallies against Bashir’s three-decade rule, with protesters chanting “freedom, peace, justice,” as they called on the veteran leader to resign.
Officials say 30 people have died in the protests so far, while rights group Human Rights Watch says at least 51 people have been killed.
“Those who took to the streets are youths and majority of them are women,” Bashir, 75, told journalists at his residence in the capital Khartoum late on Wednesday.
He said the country’s controversial public order law was “one of the reasons” fuelling the anger.
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.
Activists say that under the law nearly every gathering of Sudanese men and women, whether in public or private, can be a police target.
Bashir said overall economic conditions, including high inflation, were also driving the protests.
“There are limited jobs available for the youths… while their ambitions are higher than what the reality is,” said Bashir, who swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.
Bashir has regularly blamed the country’s economic woes on the United States, which imposed a trade embargo on Sudan in 1997.
The embargo was lifted in October 2017 but a drastic economic recovery has failed to materialise.
On Wednesday, Bashir blamed the United States again for Sudan’s economic woes.
“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.
The US continues to blacklist Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, along with Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden used to reside in Sudan between 1992 to 1996.
Bashir said the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had for years acknowledged that Sudan was “cooperating” in fighting terrorism in the region.
“But we are still in 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,” Bashir said.
International banking transactions with Sudanese banks are restricted because of the US blacklist, impacting a country that already has more than $55bn in foreign debt.
Sudan’s economy, grappling with a severe foreign currency shortage, was also badly hit due to the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
Bashir meanwhile ordered the release of all journalists detained amid a crackdown launched by the authorities since the protests erupted in December.
Eighteen Sudanese journalists have been held in detention since the protests first erupted on December 19.
Rights groups say more than 1 000 people have been arrested in the crackdown, including protesters, opposition leaders and activists.
Last week the chief of the National Intelligence and Security Service, that spearheaded the crackdown, ordered the release of all detainees held during demonstrations.
It is unclear how many people have been freed.
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