KHARTOUM, November 17 – Sudan’s parliament on Monday approved an independent electoral commission in a crucial step towards free elections due next year that was immediately overshadowed by a mass arrest of journalists.,
The line-up of the nine-member commission, appointed by the presidency and submitted to parliament for approval, was passed by 298 votes to 12 objections more than three months behind schedule, said an AFP reporter.
The names were drawn up by the three-man Sudanese presidency, head of state Omar al-Bashir, First Vice President and leader of the semi-autonomous south Salva Kiir, and Vice President Ali Osman Taha, after lengthy disagreement.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by north and south after a two-decade civil war, calls for elections no later than 2009 as part of a democratic transition, but myriad parts of the accord have hit major delays.
Just minutes after the parliamentary vote, police arrested more than 60 journalists protesting against the censorship which flouts the freedom of expression enshrined in Sudan’s interim constitution.
"They took us very harshly in one lorry. We are about 78. Now we are in custody. They are talking about interrogation. They took mobiles and money," Murtada el-Ghali, the editor-in-chief of Ajras Al-Hurriya, told AFP.
"We are sitting on the floor. They took our names."
The arrests were condemned by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, former southern rebels who share power with Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).
"This is a clear violation of the CPA… This indicates how the democratic transformation is lagging behind," said deputy secretary general Yaser Arman.
"What is going on right now in the police station is contrary to what happened in parliament. You cannot pass the electoral commission and stop freedom of expression. What a contradictory message."
Neither police nor members of the main ruling NCP were reachable for comment.
Both north and south approve the new electoral commission chairman, Abel Alier, a former vice president of Sudan under Jaafar Nimeiri, who ruled the country from 1969 to 1985, and a lawyer from the dominant southern Dinka tribe.
His deputy, Abdallah Ahmed Abdallah, is a professor of agriculture from Khartoum University who was also a regional governor under Nimeiri.
The commission will be tasked with making all the provisions and setting a date for elections despite growing fears that polls will be delayed.
Parliament approved the electoral law on July 7, two and a half years late, and one week before the International Criminal Court prosecutor sought Bashir’s arrest on 10 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Beshir has vowed that elections will be held on time, but many analysts argue that a formal arrest warrant could see him do everything possible to hold onto power, jeopardising the CPA which ended the longest civil war in Africa.
Sudan’s new electoral law grants women 25 percent of the seats in parliament and introduces proportional representation by enshrining quotas for political parties in what has been billed a road towards democratic transformation.
Bashir seized power in a 1989 Islamist-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected government. He won a new five-year term as president in Sudan’s last national election in December 2000.
That election was boycotted by the opposition, and Bashir was first declared president after a 1996 poll widely denounced as fraudulent.
Complete democratic transformation in Sudan is also dependent on a major overhaul of legislation governing the media and national security.
"We need to have the elections, but they should be in a better environment, they should be fair and free," said Arman.