Top US official begins Sudan trip to push for human rights

US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan held meetings with Sudanese officials on Thursday as he began his two-day visit to Khartoum to push for human rights and religious freedom in the African country. Sullivan is the highest ranking official from US President Donald Trump’s administration to visit Khartoum since Washington lifted its decades-old trade embargo against Sudan on October 12.

After decades of strained diplomatic relations, ties between Washington and Khartoum improved under the presidency of former US president Barack Obama, later resulting in the lifting of the sanctions by his successor Trump. For Khartoum, Sullivan’s visit is an opportunity to push for removing Sudan from Washington’s blacklist of “state sponsors of terrorism”.

After arriving in Khartoum early Thursday, Sullivan went into a series of meetings with senior Sudanese officials including Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, who played a key role in pushing for sanctions to be lifted. During his meetings, Sullivan will discuss the issue of “human rights including religious freedom” in Sudan, the US State Department said ahead of his visit.

Washington has regularly expressed concerns about Khartoum’s human rights record given the restrictions on religious and media freedoms in the country. Rights groups have accused Sudan’s security forces of arbitrarily detaining journalists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders.

Sudan’s powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) often confiscates entire print-runs of newspapers without giving a reason, particularly when they publish articles opposing government policies. Campaign groups have urged Washington to consider such issues when formulating policy with Khartoum.

“Ever since the significantly Christian South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, the Sudanese government has focussed greater attention on reducing the number of churches and their activities in Sudan,” Washington-based Enough Project’s John Prendergast wrote days before the lifting of the sanctions.

Khartoum insists that Sudan upholds human rights and religious freedom, which it says is exemplified by several churches existing next to mosques. Ervin Massinga, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Khartoum this week said: “Progress on issues such as human rights and religious freedom ending the civil conflict and bringing all Sudanese into the political process are very important to us.”

During discussions with Sullivan, Khartoum will push for removing Sudan from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”. “It’s an extremely important visit for us,” senior foreign ministry official Abdelghani Elnaim said. “Our agenda is to remove Sudan from the list of terrorism as well as to achieve the objective of full normalisation of relations with the United States.”

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