Sudan invites U.S. legislators in effort to redo image Criticized African nation seeks 'impartial probing' of slave-trade allegations

August 10, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Widely condemned for involvement in international terrorism and slavery, Sudan's Islamic government has invited 20 members of Congress to visit the African country as part of an apparent effort to improve the country's image.

Sudan's ambassador in Washington, Mahdi Ibrahim, wrote letters of invitation last month, telling the lawmakers that his offer "is prompted by a sincere desire of the government to obtain a scrupulous and impartial probing of the slavery allegations."

Ibrahim sent the letters after The Sun's publication of stories detailing how two reporters illegally entered southern Sudan and bought the freedom of two young slaves for $500 each. The invitations also come after numerous human rights reports alleged involvement of government-controlled forces in slave raids.

Congress and the Clinton administration are facing pressure to impose sanctions on Sudan to force it to stop slave raids in the south of the country, where the fundamentalist government based in Khartoum is engaged in a civil war against mainly Christian rebels. The fighting that has already lasted more than a decade has cost an estimated 1.5 million lives.

Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, has introduced legislation calling for sanctions against Sudan. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for similar action.

No list released

The ambassador declined yesterday to identify the lawmakers he had invited or say what responses he has received.

One of those invited was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who serves on the African subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. According to an aide, she cannot find time on her schedule to go to Sudan.

The ambassador's letter said: "Slavery in all its guises is a categorically prohibited practice both under the domestic law of Sudan and international conventions to which Sudan is a signatory."

Ibrahim wrote that the reports of slavery came "largely if not entirely from sources whose credibility and motives might reasonably be questioned."

The Sun's reporters went to Sudan with leaders of Christian Solidarity International, a Zurich, Switzerland-based human-rights group that has repeatedly condemned Sudan's ruling National Islamic Front for its involvement in slavery and has called for international sanctions.

The testimony the reporters gathered from former slaves, families who have lost women and children to slavery, two Arab militia officers and an Arab slave trader implicated the government in allowing unpaid Arab militia forces to keep any war booty they seized, including men, women and children.

In his letter, Ibrahim cited the most recent State Department report on human rights, which referred to "credible but &r unconfirmed reports" of women and children being sold. "The allegations that the government of Sudan is less than assiduous in detecting and punishing slavery remain unproven," he wrote.

His letter continued: "The government of Sudan believes that fair-minded members of Congress would profit from listening to all views regarding the slavery allegations. Like all governments, the government of Sudan has its share of warts. But it covets the assistance of the United States in seeking to mitigate the tragic adversities created by the prolonged warfare in the south."

Under U.N. sanctions

Sudan is under United Nations sanctions for its support of international terrorism, because of its refusal to extradite three suspects in an assassination attempt last year against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Sudan has said that it is unable to locate the suspects. The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet next week to debate strengthening the sanctions by imposing an air embargo.

The Sudanese ambassador, asked in an interview if he expected visiting U.S. lawmakers to find any evidence of slavery, said: "I want people in this country, particularly people in a position of office, to visit Sudan, to know about it factually and to establish any kind of dialogue with my government -- what you usually term in the West, critical dialogue."

As evidence that the country was open to human-rights monitors, he pointed to the visit this month of Gaspar Biro, the U.N. special representative. Biro had been banned from Sudan for two years for allegedly having insulted Islam.

Envoy disputes reports

Biro, now in Geneva, issued a statement yesterday saying he had been "grossly misrepresented" in the Sudanese news media as saying there was no evidence of slavery in Sudan. Biro asserted that he had said "nothing of the kind" and that he had given no interviews to the Sudanese news media.

The U.N. statement said that Biro had received reports about "slavery, servitude, forced labor and similar practices taking place in several parts of Sudan and perpetrated by some members of the Sudan army and paramilitary groups fighting the government in southern Sudan."

"Reports on such practices continue to be received," including during Biro's mission to Khartoum this month, the statement said.

A protest against slavery in Sudan and other countries is scheduled to be held outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday. It is being organized by the Congress on Modern Pan-African Slavery, a California church-based group formed two months ago.

"This is our first step," said Gregory Townsend, a spokesman for the group. "It is part of our strategy to dismantle this slavery."

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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