Two Roman Catholic priests have been pardoned and freed by the fundamentalist Islamic government of Sudan, which threatened the clerics with crucifixion if convicted of planting bombs in Khartoum and tortured them while they awaited trial, said one of the released clergymen today.
The release of the Rev. Hilary Boma and the Rev. Lino Sebit--and at least 18 others--was seen as the government's latest attempt to reconcile with Sudan's opposition forces.
Sebit said in a telephone interview from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, that interrogators killed three of their fellow prisoners and beat the clerics, who were released on Monday.
"They beat us with whips, sticks, anything that they could get," said Sebit, 33. He said he saw two men, Galdino Okeng and Abdallah Chol, die from the beatings, and said that a third man, Mohamed Issa, also died from torture.
"One of the security men told me, 'The pope will not come to Sudan to help you' and 'The [Roman Catholic] Church is a foreign church, not a Sudanese church. It is a church of white people,' " he added.
The priests were arrested with as many as 20 other men in August 1998 and charged with setting off bombs on June 30, 1998, the ninth anniversary of the coup that brought the National Islamic Front to power. No one was injured in the bombings, which authorities believe were part of a plot to mar anniversary celebrations.
The Sudanese government enforces a strict Islamic code on the vast country of 32 million people. That has aggravated a 16-year civil war between the Arabs, Muslim north and Sudan's black African south, which practices traditional and Christian beliefs. The Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, has been particularly harassed, with churches bulldozed and priests routinely detained.
When Boma and Sebit were charged with offenses that, under the Islamic code governing Sudan's legal system, could lead to their crucifixion, critics and independent observers suggested that their widely publicized confessions had resulted from torture.
Sebit said that was so.
"We were very tired, almost dying," Sebit said. "We had no choice. If we said no, we were going to die."
The prisoners' release came by presidential pardon, which the official government news agency Suna said was "in accordance with the spirit of peace and detente now being experienced in the country." Human rights activist Ghazi Suliman said he negotiated their release in a meeting with President Omar Hassan Bashir.
"I asked the president to release them if the government is serious about relaxation in political life," Suliman said. "He told me, 'They have made a mistake.' I said all people make mistakes."
All but one of the remaining prisoners--said to number 18 or 19--were released today. The number was unclear in part because two of those Sebit identified as killed in captivity were not listed among those known to have been arrested. The lone prisoner was said to be receiving treatment in a military hospital.
Sudan has been strongly condemned from abroad, especially by the United States, because of the government's conduct in the civil war, in which 2 million people have died. Human rights groups have condemned the forces for taking southerners to the north as slaves and bombing civilian targets. The United States has long considered Sudan a supporter of terrorism and last year President Clinton ordered the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory that he claimed was associated with Osama bin Laden, the Saudi expatriate accused of masterminding the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
And in a controversial move that signaled the intensity of its disapproval of Khartoum, Congress recently approved a measure to send food aid to the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, the primary rebel group. The bill overrides existing U.S. law banning direct food aid to armed groups.