Sudan’s Ousted Leader Is Sentenced to Two Years for Corruption

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of genocide in Darfur, was charged with possessing foreign currency and receiving illegal gifts.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, in court on Saturday.
Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, in court on Saturday.Credit...Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

NAIROBI, Kenya — For almost three decades, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir ruled Sudan with a heavy fist, jailing opponents and former allies, overseeing the bloody suppression of the Darfur region and squashing protests that dared to challenge his regime.

But on Saturday, Mr. al-Bashir, 75, was convicted of money laundering and corruption and sentenced to two years in detention in a much-anticipated trial that was the first attempt by his own citizens to call him to account.

Wearing the traditional Sudanese white jalabiya garment and turban, Mr. al-Bashir stepped into a packed court in central Khartoum and was corralled in a meshed metal defendant’s cage. Once a powerful strongman who ruled one of Africa’s biggest nations, he stood with his head bowed as the judge read the charges against him while several police officers stood around.

The judge, citing his age, ordered him to serve his time in a correctional center for older prisoners.

As the judge read the verdict, his supporters started jeering and saying the case was “politicized,” forcing security officials to remove them from the court. Supporters also gathered in front of the court to protest the decision.

Mr. al-Bashir was deposed in April after months of persistent demonstrations throughout the country convinced key military commanders to turn against him. When security forces searched his home and found suitcases stuffed with millions of euros, U.S. dollars, and Sudanese pounds, he was arrested and charged with possessing foreign currency, corruption and receiving illegal gifts.

But Mr. al-Bashir could face even more serious charges related to his alleged abuses of human rights: He has already been accused of ordering the killing of pro-democracy protesters earlier this year, and was called to court this month over his role in the coup that brought him to power in 1989.

He was indicted a decade ago on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but the joint civilian-military cabinet that now governs Sudan — the result of months of delicate negotiations — has not so far agreed to have him extradited to face trial there.

Galal Yousif, a Sudanese artist who played a prominent role in the protests to oust Mr. al-Bashir, said the current court case against Mr. al-Bashir reflects the will of many people.

The military on Friday announced heightened security measures and the closing of roads ahead of anticipated protests linked to the verdict.

“Al-Bashir did a lot of crime in Sudan,” Mr. Yousif said. “I know he’s guilty and everyone knows that.”

Yet trying Mr. al-Bashir only on corruption charges, and not for human-rights abuses, “doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Yousif said, and doesn’t amount to “real justice” for those he victimized.

“No one is satisfied about that,” Mr. Yousif said. “The streets are awake and we are still in revolution.”

Nevertheless, the trial marks a pivotal moment in the fraught democratic transition of Sudan, a large, strategic state that serves as a bridge between north and sub-Saharan Africa. By facing the law, Mr. al-Bashir joins a list of reputedly despotic leaders who have been removed from office through popular protests and who have been put on trial over their actions while in power.

Mr. al-Bashir’s lawyers have argued that it is common for leaders to hold foreign currency. While Mr. al-Bashir has admitted to investigators that he received $90 million from Saudi royals, the current trial is about $25 million of those funds which he received from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

During the ruling on Saturday, one of Mr. al-Bashir’s lawyers told the judge that the trial was “political” and that the deposed leader never used “one single dollar for his own personal benefit.” One of his lawyers told reporters his client could appeal the verdict.

For many years, Mr. al-Bashir seemed untouchable. A guilty ruling in the corruption case helps “break this spell of immunity that has been pervasive” under Mr. al-Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party, said Jonas Horner, a Sudan expert with the International Crisis Group, a research organization.

Following a career in the military, Mr. al-Bashir rose to power in a bloodless putsch in 1989. During his reign, Sudan was plagued by armed conflict and multiple economic shocks. Mr. al-Bashir gave refuge to Osama bin Laden years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

But last December, protests triggered by the high price of bread, a symptom of an acute economic crisis, erupted in the northeastern city of Atbara, quickly spreading to major cities including Omdurman and the capital, Khartoum.

To subdue the uprising, authorities temporarily shut down the internet, arrested opposition figures and critical journalists, and used tear gas to disperse growing crowds that chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

Following months of tumultuous protests led by young Sudanese, doctors and other professionals, the military removed Mr. al-Bashir from office and arrested him on April 11, bringing to an end the rule of one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Mr. al-Bashir was initially put under house arrest at his residence in the military headquarters, but was transferred to the Kober prison, where Mr. al-Bashir once jailed demonstrators and political prisoners.

In mid-August, Sudan’s generals, along with the opposition alliance that grew out of the protest movement, reached a power-sharing agreement that promises to oversee elections and a return to civilian rule in three years. Abdalla Hamdok, an economist, was named prime minister, while Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan leads an 11-person sovereign council.

The transitional government has undertaken steps to keep Sudan’s transition on track and fulfill major demands by pro-democracy protesters. Mr. Hamdok’s administration has disbanded the Congress Party, overturned morality laws that outlawed drinking and prohibited women from wearing clothes considered revealing, and convinced the Trump administration to send an ambassador to Khartoum for the first time in 23 years.

Mr. Hamdok and his cabinet recently visited Washington in an effort to get Sudan removed from the Americans government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that has crippled Sudan’s economy, limited foreign investment and restricted debt relief.

On Friday, the transitional government released 10 priorities that included fighting corruption and safeguarding human rights.

Sentry, a watchdog group founded by the actor George Clooney and the rights activist John Prendergast, supported Sudan’s removal from the list this week, citing positive steps taken by the Hamdok administration.

While the corruption trial against Mr. al-Bashir is crucial, many Sudanese worry that by trying him first on corruption, meaningful justice will not be delivered, said Mr. Horner, the Sudan expert. It wasn’t immediately clear if Mr. al-Bashir will be tried on human rights charges in Sudan.

“The financial crimes are secondary for many Sudanese,” Mr. Horner said, especially for those who suffered in the brutal military campaign in the western region of Darfur, where as many as 300,000 people have been killed since 2003, according to United Nations estimates.

“The main concern for Darfur and those in the peripheries in the south and west,” he said, “is to see him held accountable for crimes that are far more violent and damning.”