A court in Sudan on Thursday overturned prison sentences for eight protesters as scores of people rallied in Khartoum against tough measures imposed by President Omar al-Bashir to end demonstrations.
The emergency appeals court’s verdict came as Bashir chaired a meeting of political allies to discuss the protest movement that has rocked his iron-fisted rule.
The eight demonstrators had been given jail terms ranging from six months to five years by special emergency courts in Khartoum last week after they were arrested for participating in rallies in the capital.
“The appeals court dismissed the charges against these people who had been sentenced on February 28,” said defence lawyer Enaam Atieg, a member of a lawyers association that is part of the umbrella group spearheading protests. “The appeals court has ordered their release,” she told AFP.
The jail terms were the first such penalties handed down by special courts set up to investigate violations of a state of emergency which Bashir imposed on February 22.
Hundreds of protesters were brought before emergency courts last Thursday, hours after they were arrested for demonstrating in the capital and its twin city of Omdurman, state media reported.
Scores of them were freed immediately, while many others were sentenced to jail terms of up to one month.
“The appeals court also cancelled their jail terms and instead ordered them to pay fines,” Atieg said, without specifying how many protesters actually had their charges dismissed on Thursday.
Bashir imposed the one-year state of emergency after an initial crackdown on nationwide protests failed to suppress the rallies against his three-decade rule.
He has also banned all unauthorised rallies and given sweeping powers to security forces to carry out raids and personal searches.
Bloody protests have shaken Sudan since December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.
The rallies turned into a nationwide campaign against Bashir’s tenure, with protesters calling on him to step down.
Officials say 31 people have died in protest-related violence so far, while Human Rights Watch has put the death at at least 51.
On Thursday, Bashir chaired a meeting of political groups close to his ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
“We discussed with President Bashir the importance of preparing an atmosphere for a dialogue by releasing political detainees,” Bahar Idris, a leader of a group close to NCP told reporters.
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been detained in a crackdown since the protests erupted, rights groups say.
The scale and intensity of the protests have shrunk in recent days, especially after the state of emergency came into effect.
The near-daily demonstrations have now turned into weekly rallies, with demonstrators taking to the streets mainly on Thursdays and mostly in Khartoum.
Scores of protesters, many of them women, rallied in some areas of Khartoum and Omdurman on Thursday, condemning the state of emergency and other tough measures imposed by Bashir to quell the protests.
“Women are leading the rallies today, but security agents are arresting protesters in big numbers,” a witness told AFP.
Protest organisers had called Thursday’s rallies in support of women on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Late on Thursday, protesters staged a demonstration in north Khartoum area of Shambat, but security forces confronted them with tear gas, witnesses said.
Bashir, who swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, has remained defiant in the face of the protests.
The 75-year-old leader has dissolved Sudan’s federal and provincial governments and ordered top level changes to his administration to tamp down the unrest.
Anger in Sudan has grown for years as an economic crisis has seen inflation soar and caused shortages of foreign currency.
Bashir on Wednesday pushed on with high-profile changes as he sacked the chief of the central bank.