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August 11, 2008 3:06 PM

ABA Hears From Sudanese Attorney on Darfur Crisis

Posted by Claire Duffett

When Salih Mahmoud Osman talks about the Sudanese government, his smile disappears and the cadence of his East African accent shifts from upbeat to serious.

"They control everything," he explains, referring to the Arab-dominated ruling party led by President Omar al-Bashir.

Osman, a Sudanese lawyer, was in New York Friday to discuss his legal work in Darfur, where war and genocide have raged for more than eight years. He spoke at a morning session of the American Bar Association's annual meeting in New York.

Osman is a member of the ethnic Fur tribe in Darfur (meaning "home of the Fur"). Last year, the European Union gave him its top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, for his work traveling the world explaining human rights violations, providing current refugee figures, and condemning the government.

He has devoted himself to the cause since 2000, when--in response to growing aggression by the government and government-sponsored militias against ethnic African groups--he and several other lawyers broke with the government-sponsored Sudan Bar Association to form the Darfur Bar Association. The group currently has about 100 members.

To Osman and his colleagues, the split was inevitable: The Sudan bar denies that violence is occurring in Darfur and supports the Islamic penal code, which contains provisions contrary to international human rights standards. Until al-Bashir overhauled the country's legal system in 1991, Sudan followed England’s common law tradition, Osman says.

"[The Sudan bar] is in cahoots with the government," Osman explains. One example of this, he says, is the national bar's complicity in the al-Bashir government's systematic repression of blacks. "It denies the institutions even exist."

The Darfur bar, of which Osman is deputy director, has already trained several dozen Sudanese attorneys and plans to train 30 more at a seminar in London this October. The main focus: teach lawyers how to provide free legal representation to ethnic tribesman accused of crimes by the central government. The University of Khartoum, where Osman got his legal training, no longer admits blacks (though its admissions policy does not formally reflect this), so training by the Darfur bar is now essentially the only legal education available to non-Arab Sudanese, Osman says.

The Darfur Bar also is creating a team of attorneys to interview victims and refugees in preparation for the day when the rule of law returns to Sudan.

"Like in Kosovo, it could be 10 years before this evidence can be put to use," explains Patsy Engelhard, executive director of the ABA's litigation section, which organized Friday's event. "But it will be really important to have it then."

The ABA's annual meeting runs through August 12 in New York City.


 

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