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Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi

Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi was a prominent Sudanese Sunni Muslim, who advocates an Islamic state and was critical of Western secularism. Hassan al-Turabi was seen as the man who introduced Sharia in Sudan. During an active political life of some 50 years, he was imprisoned or held under house arrest on several occasions. Those periods of detention have been interspersed with periods of high political office. A legend in his own time, Turabi, or rather his views, tended to attract rather more attention with him out of office. Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi was one of the more consequential Sudanese thinkers of recent times. His long-running power struggle with his erstwhile ally President Omar al-Bashir continued until Turabi's death.

Western-educated, fluent in both French and English, Turabi saw himself as a man with a mission. Turabi was married, and had a son. His brother-in-law, Sadiq al-Mahdi, was a former Sudanese prime minister, leader of the Ansar religious sect and president of the Ummah Party.

Hailing from a family steeped in Islamic jurisprudence, his father being a judge [others say a Sufi Muslim sheikh], Turabi always prioritised Islam over racial, ethnic and tribal identity. Born in the eastern Sudanese city of Kassala in 1932, Turabi received an Islamic education before he earned his Masters at the University of London (1955-57) and PhD from the Sorbonne, Paris (1959-64). He married into perhaps the most important religious-political family in Sudan -- his wife Wisal was the sister of former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadig Al-Mahdi.

In the elections of 1965, the Islamic Charter Front (ICF), a political party that espoused the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin), received only an insignificant portion of the popular vote. But the election roughly coincided with the return from France of Hasan al-Turabi. Early in his career and immediately after his graduation from Khartoum University, Faculty of Law, in 1963, Turabi joined the Islamic Charter Front, the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rising quickly in the ranks, in 1964 the suave and articulate Turabi became the secretary-general of the ICF [renamed the Islamic National Front (NIF) in 1985]. From the inception of his political career, he stressed the liberal, progressive and open-minded nature of Islam. He championed women's rights -- authoring The Position of Women in Islam in 1973, a radical treatise in Islamist discourse at the time.

Turabi methodically charted the Brotherhood and the NIF on a course of action designed to seize control of the Sudanese government despite the Muslim fundamentalists‘ lack of popularity with the majority of the Sudanese people. Between 1964 and 1969, Turabi was the secretary-general of the Islamic Charter Front, a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood that advocated an Islamic constitution and opposed communism. Following the 1969 coup that brought General Ja'far al-Numayri to power, he spent six years in custody before escaping to exile in Libya for three years.

In 1979, as President Numayri sought rapprochement with Islamist leaders, Turabi was appointed attorney general. While he was attorney general, a liberal politician and theologian Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was put on trial for apostasy - abandoning religious belief - and executed in January 1985. Many Sudanese believed Mr Turabi was behind the president's introduction of certain aspects of Sharia (Islamic Law) and the replacement of the Council of Ministers with a Presidential Council. Shortly before the 1985 coup that overthrew President Numayri, Turabi was sacked, tried for sedition with other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned. After the coup, he dissolved the Islamic Charter Front and reorganised it into the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF's strong finances and support among graduates helped the party to third place in the 1986 elections. Turabi was appointed minister of justice and attorney general in May 1988, and minister of foreign affairs in December 1988. He also served briefly as deputy prime minister in 1989 before relinquishing all four posts when the NIF refused to endorse a peace agreement drawn up by the government and the SPLA, which advocated secularism in the south.

Although he was imprisoned with other political figures following the 1989 coup that brought to power President Bashir, Turabi was soon released and given a crucial role helping the new government to fashion its policies in accordance with Islam.

By the fall of 1989, Ussama Bin Ladin had sufficient stature among Islamic militants that Sudanese political leader Hassan al Turab, urged him to transplant his whole organization to Sudan. Turabi headed the National Islamic Front in a coalition that had recently seized power in Khartoum. Bin Ladin agreed to help Turabi in an ongoing war against African Christian separatists in southern Sudan and also to do some road building. Turabi in return would let Bin Ladin use Sudan as a base for worldwide business operations and for preparations for jihad. While agents of Bin Ladin began to buy property in Sudan in 1990, Bin Ladin himself moved from Afghanistan back to Saudi Arabia.

Turabi captured the Zeitgest of Sudan and much of Muslim Africa in the early 1990s with his radical Islamist posturing. In 1991, he founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), an annual event that grouped together militant Islamist leaders from around the world. As secretary-general of the PAIC, Turabi played host to the leader of Al-Qaeda, which was based in Sudan in 1990-96 -- a time when Turabi was at the pinnacle of his political career. Delegations of violent Islamist extremists came to the meetings of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conferences from all the groups represented in Bin Ladin's Islamic Army Shura. Representatives also came from organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Turabi sought to persuade Shiites and Sunnis to put aside their divisions and join against the common enemy.

To protect his own ties with Iraq, Turabi reportedly brokered an agreement that Bin Ladin would stop supporting activities against Saddam. Bin Ladin apparently honored this pledge, at least for a time, although he continued to aid a group of Islamist extremists operating in part of Iraq (Kurdistan) outside of Baghdad's control.

Not until 1998 did al Qaeda undertake a major terrorist operation of its own, in large part because Bin Ladin lost his base in Sudan. Ever since the Islamist regime came to power in Khartoum, the United States and other Western governments had pressed it to stop providing a haven for terrorist organizations. Other governments in the region, such as those of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and even Libya, which were targets of some of these groups, added their own pressure. At the same time, the Sudanese regime began to change. Though Turabi had been its inspirational leader, General Omar al Bashir, president since 1989, had never been entirely under his thumb. Thus as outside pressures mounted, Bashir's supporters began to displace those of Turabi.

Following the 1996 elections to the new National Assembly, Turabi was elected speaker. In 1999, Turabi became the secretary-general of the National Congress (NC) Party, which evolved out of the NIF under the leadership of President Bashir.

In December 1999, President al-Bashir declared a state of emergency and disbanded the National Assembly two days before it was to vote on a constitutional amendment that would have reduced presidential powers. The disbanding of the National Assembly reduced the power of the Parliamentary Speaker and chairman of the ruling political party, Hassan al-Turabi. President al-Bashir suspended articles of the constitution and suspended the political activity of Hassan al-Turabi. On 24 January 2000, President al-Bashir formed a new government and in May 2000, he froze all activities of the ruling political party.

The political rift between the president and al-Turabi became more apparent in June 2000 when al-Turabi launched his own opposition political party called the Popular National Congress, and sought to challenge President al-Bashir, accusing him of trying to separate religion and the state.

On 21 February 2001, Hassan al-Turabi and senior members of his Popular National Congress Party (PNCP) were arrested by security forces after the PNCP signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). They were charged with threatening national security and the constitutional order. Al-Turabi was detained in a maximum security prison, held in solitary confinement and denied visitors. A committee set up by the Ministry of Justice to look into possible charges against al-Turabi recommended two criminal charges - inciting hatred against the state and sedition. Both crimes are punishable by death or life imprisonment under the Criminal Act.

In October 2001 President al-Bashir dropped charges against al-Turabi and the senior members of the PNCP that had been arrested in February 2001. The senior members of the PNCP who had been arrested were released, but Al-Turabi was not released for security reasons.

He was arrested in March 2004 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government after signing a controversial deal with the separatist SPLA rebels fighting for greater autonomy for South Sudan. The coup accusations and his arrest came only months after his release from custody in October 2003 when he had spent 32 months in detention.

Turabi was arrested in March 2008 after saying President Bashir should surrender to the International Criminal Court. The court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir in 2008 for war crimes in Darfur, charges the president denied. The National Intelligence and Security Service said that Turabi, “was not detained over his request that President Al-Bashir face ICC charges, but instead because of Al-Turabi’s recent contact with leaders from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), to which Al-Turabi was allegedly providing financial and logistical assistance” in order to create a “military coup” in Darfur.

On 30 October 2009 the Sudanese government lifted its ban on an opposition party and freed the party's prominent leader, Hassan al-Turabi, who had been in detention for more than a year. Sudan's long-running state of emergency was also lifted in most areas of the country.

Turabi was arrested a month after the country's first multiparty elections in 24 years. He had denounced the national elections as fraudulent. A group of security officers arrived at the home of Hassan al-Turabi 15 March 2010 and took away the head of the opposition Popular Congress Party. Authorities also raided the printing house of the party's daily newspaper Rai al-Shaab and confiscated all its copies.

On 17 January 2011 Sudanese security forces arrested a top opposition leader who suggested the country is ready for a Tunisia-style uprising. Family members of Hassan al-Turabi said security agents came to his Khartoum home and took him into custody. At least eight members of Turabi's Popular Congress Party were also arrested. Hassan Al-Turabi was released from jail a few months later.

Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi was hospitalised 05 March 2015 after falling unconscious in his office. Hassan al-Turabi is in critical condition after what was described as a heart attack. Turabi died 05 March 2016 of a heart attack at the age of 84. Hassan al-Turabi was buried 06 March 2016 in a cemetery east of the capital, Khartoum, following a funeral attended by thousands of mourners.

The influential al-Turabi was known fondly as The Sheikh by his followers and as a cunning demagogue by his detractors.

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Page last modified: 06-03-2016 19:38:22 ZULU