October 28, 2014 / 3:59 PM / 3 years ago

Opposition leader suggests 'soft exit' for Sudan's Bashir

CAIRO (Reuters) - Leading Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi has urged President Omar Hassan al-Bashir not to extend his 25-year rule and suggested offering him sanctuary from a war crimes trial if he relinquishes power.

Leading Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi talks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Shadi Bushra

It is the first time the opposition has publicly put forth such an idea, with Mahdi hoping that the notion of a “soft exit” could encourage factions within Bashir’s own party to push for his departure and end Sudan’s international isolation.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for Bashir for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide relating to bloodshed in Sudan’s Darfur region.

He has denied the allegations and refuses to go before the Hague-based court. If he leaves office, he would have to entrust his fate to his successor and concern over the charges was a key driver in his move to seek another term in next April’s presidential elections, political sources say.

Twenty-five years after being overthrown by Bashir, Mahdi called his bid to keep hold of power a “historic mistake” that would worsen Sudan’s isolation and cripple an economy in turmoil since the oil-rich south seceded in 2011.

“We as people who want change in Sudan look for a transition that would involve some kind of soft exit for him,” Mahdi told Reuters in an interview.

“If he becomes part of a solution, I think we can persuade all that he’s entitled to a different type of treatment... But if change comes in spite of his resistance... whoever comes to power will find it necessary to hand him over to the ICC.”

Mahdi, who heads one of Sudan’s oldest political parties, was the country’s last democratically elected prime minister. He was overthrown in 1989 by an alliance of Islamists and military commanders that still form the nucleus of Bashir’s all-powerful National Congress Party (NCP).

Mahdi said disenchantment with Bashir was growing as younger NCP members expressed increasing frustration with an old guard of hardliners who refuse to make room for a new generation.

Bashir won 94-percent approval as the NCP’s election for presidential candidate on Saturday. But NCP sources have said the fight for the top job would have been much more competitive without the ICC indictment hanging over the country.

Mahdi’s offer to cut a deal that would guarantee Bashir a safe exit could change the political calculus within the ruling party, strengthening the hand of those who say that he has become a liability for both Sudan and the NCP.

Offering shelter to Bashir would have been unthinkable for his opponents a few years ago and also signals a tacit admission that only a compromise could rid them of a man who has survived party rivals, perennial armed rebellions and economic sanctions.

ELECTION BOYCOTT

Mahdi said NCP critics understood that removing the controversial president could unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief and foreign aid that Sudan needs to shore up an economy that is suffering from some 40 percent inflation.

Sudan is struggling with a raft of U.N. and bilateral sanctions. The United States renewed its sanctions on Friday, saying the government posed a threat to the United States.

Though Bashir pledged in January to redraw the constitution, bring opposition parties into government, and launch a national dialogue, no visible progress has been made. His decision to run again has thrown the viability of the April polls into doubt.

“There can be no elections under this regime,” Mahdi said, calling on all opposition parties to boycott.

Alongside his own Umma Party, the Popular Congress Party, led by veteran Islamist and erstwhile Bashir ally Hassan al-Turabi, said this month it would not participate in the polls.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which came second in the 2010 polls, was banned when its armed wing began fighting against the government in Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces, making its participation unlikely.

Sudan’s government accused Mahdi of conspiring with the rebels, a charge that could carry the death penalty, leading him to seek refuge in Cairo in early August.

Mahdi said the national dialogue was at a “dead end”, adding that there could be no progress until all political players, including the armed groups, were at the negotiating table.

“What is the point of a dialogue when any member in the dialogue can be arrested because he or she said something that doesn’t please the government?” he said.

Bashir may see little reason to compromise now.

Chaos in Libya and Syria has led some critics to moderate their demands that Bashir be removed by any means. The turmoil also seems to have emboldened his administration, which has continued to jail politicians and journalists.

Mahdi himself has strong political credentials as the grandson of Sayyed Abdel Rahman al-Mahdi, who led a war against Anglo-Egyptian rule. But at 78, he is older than Bashir and many Sudanese say he represents their country’s past not its future.

In any case, Bashir and his inner circle will have difficulty trusting Mahdi’s offer of sanctuary without a guarantee that Sudan’s fractious opposition will all support it.

Mahdi acknowledged that some rebels would demand “their pound of flesh” but said it was possible to find a compromise, suggesting Bashir might go and live in another country.

“The Sudanese people are a tolerant people... But it may be better for (Bashir) if he is parked somewhere outside,” he said.

Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Shadi Bushra; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Crispian Balmer

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