- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2010

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has alarmed human rights activists and non-Muslims in the south of his country by saying that strict Islamic law will be enforced in the north if the south secedes in a referendum next month.

Over the weekend, Mr. Bashir said that if the south secedes, as is widely expected, Sudan’s constitution would be amended to make Islam the official religion, Shariah the official law and Arabic the official language.

Southern Sudanese and Western officials expressed concern about the safety of southerners living in the north.

Arop Deng Kuol, head of mission of the government of southern Sudan in Ethiopia, said in a phone interview with The Washington Times that statements such as Mr. Bashir’s will intimidate southerners in the north and prompt them to flee.

“It will serve as a signal to southern Sudanese left behind [in the north] that they will face severe punishment” under Islamic law, Mr. Kuol said.

Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Bashir’s remarks are the latest in a string from National Congress Party (NCP) officials that are “extremely destructive and irresponsible.”

“Instead of counteracting all the hostile rhetoric by NCP officials by giving public assurances that Sudan will protect and uphold its people’s rights regardless of the referendum’s outcome, al-Bashir is saying that northern Sudan will become an even less tolerant place if the south secedes,” Ms. Henry said.

Addressing a gathering of his supporters in the eastern Sudanese town of Gederef on Sunday, Mr. Bashir said, “If the south secedes, we will change the constitution.”

The interim national constitution set up a special commission to ensure that non-Muslims “are not adversely affected by the application of Shariah law.”

It also says “the judicial discretion of courts to impose penalties of non-Muslims shall observe the long-established Shariah principle that non-Muslims are not subject to prescribed penalties.”

This constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which ended two decades of civil war between the north and the south, also contain a bill of rights upholding basic freedoms.

These provisions apply even if the south secedes and Sudan adopts a new constitution.

Sudanese voters will participate in a referendum on Jan. 9 to determine whether the south will secede. A second referendum, in which residents of the oil-rich Abyei province are to decide whether they want to be a part of the south, will likely be delayed due to an impasse over issues that include voting rights, demarcation of borders and oil revenue.

In separate remarks interpreted by human rights activists as an ominous indicator of things to come, Mr. Bashir defended the flogging of a woman by police in the north. The incident was captured on a video that was posted online.

“If she is lashed according to shariah law, there is no investigation. Why are some people ashamed? This is shariah,” Mr. Bashir said.

Ms. Henry said Sudanese leaders have an obligation to uphold all residents’ basic human rights regardless of the referendum.

“Such comments only add to the sense among minorities that they are not welcome, and this message does not reflect Sudan’s legal obligations toward its citizens,” she said.

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