Sudan's Bashir hands powers as party chief to deputy

Ahmed Harun, pictured here in 2012, was previously governor of Sudan's troubled South Kordofan state (AFP Photo/ASHRAF SHAZLY) (AFP)

Khartoum (AFP) - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has handed his powers as chief of the country's ruling party to his newly appointed deputy, the party said late Thursday, weeks into protests against Bashir's rule.

The move came after Bashir last week imposed a year-long state of emergency and dissolved the government in a bid to quell demonstrations and deadly clashes that have rocked the country since December.

"President Omar al-Bashir has transferred his authority as chief of the party to Ahmed Harun," the ruling National Congress Party said in a statement.

"Harun will serve as the acting chief of NCP until the party's next general convention, where a new president of the party will be elected."

Announcing the changes last Friday, he said he was now adopting a neutral stance towards all parties, but did not categorically say he would quit as NCP chief.

An analyst said the NCP statement was vague.

"There's no explicit indication that he is actually stepping down as party chief," said Murithi Mutiga of Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG).

"This is a further demonstration of the division within the top ranks of the ruling party," he added.

"There are voices within the ruling party that recognise that there is a major crisis and it will not be enough to suppress the uprising with repression."

- Top level changes -

Bashir appointed Harun, wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the conflict in Darfur, as his deputy party chief last week as part of a top-level reshuffle in the face of ongoing protests.

Bashir himself is wanted by the ICC for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, charges he denies.

The NCP has an overwhelming majority in parliament, and according to its charter, the chief of the party becomes its candidate in presidential elections.

The next presidential election in Sudan is scheduled for 2020.

The NCP was formed a few years after Bashir swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, and he has been party chief ever since.

But protestors have staged regular demonstrations across Sudan since December, accusing the administration of mismanaging the economy and calling on Bashir to step down.

He declared a year-long state of emergency across the country last week after an initial crackdown failed to suppress the protests.

Bashir also dissolved the federal and provincial governments, appointing 16 officers from the army and two from the feared National Intelligence and Security Service as governors of the country's 18 provinces.

He has pushed on with top-level changes to his administration, including sacking his long-time ally and first vice president Bakri Hassen Saleh, who was replaced by General Awad Ibnouf.

Bashir also ordered the creation of special emergency courts to investigate violations during the state of emergency.

On Thursday, eight protesters were sentenced to jail by emergency courts in Khartoum for participating in unauthorised rallies earlier in the day, the tribunals' first such rulings.

Officials say 31 people have died in protest-related violence so far, while Human Rights Watch says at least 51 people have been killed.

Protests first erupted over a government decision to triple the price of bread, but swiftly escalated into demonstrations against Bashir's rule.