Omar al Bashir, 76, could face the death penalty if convicted for overthrowing then PM Sadek al Mahdi's government.

Ex-president Omar al Bashir is being tried for the military coup that brought him to power more than three decades ago.
Ex-president Omar al Bashir is being tried for the military coup that brought him to power more than three decades ago. (AFP)

Sudan's former president Omar al Bashir, ousted amid a popular pro-democracy uprising last year, is now on trial for spearheading a military coup that brought him to power more than three decades ago.

Bashir, 76, could face the death penalty if convicted for overthrowing the democratically elected government of then prime minister Sadek al Mahdi in 1989.

The co-accused, 27 of them, were at Khartoum court house on Tuesday. The building was heavily guarded by police armed with AK-47 assault rifles, batons, and tear gas grenades.

"This court will listen to each of them and we will give each of the 28 accused the opportunity to defend themselves," the president of the court, Issam al Din Mohammad Ibrahim, said.

Bashir, who was kept with the other accused in a caged area of the courtroom, did not speak during the trial's opening session which ended after about one hour, with the next hearing set for August 11.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of family members of the defendants rallied, many shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)".

First such trial in modern Arab history 

It is the first time in the modern history of the Arab world that the architect of a coup has been put on trial, although the man considered by many to be the true brain behind the putsch –– Hassan Turabi of the National Islamic Front –– died in 2016.

One of the almost 200 defence lawyers, Hashem al Gali, has charged that Bashir and the others would face "a political trial" being held "in a hostile environment".

Also in the dock were Bashir's former vice presidents Ali Osman Taha and Bakri Hassan Saleh and several of his former ministers and governors.

They are also accused of plotting the June 30, 1989 coup in which the army arrested Sudan's political leaders, suspended parliament, closed the airport and announced the power grab on the radio.

Sudan has also pledged in principle to hand over Bashir to the International Criminal Court to face trial on charges of war crimes and genocide in the Darfur conflict, which left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million in a scorched earth campaign against a 2003 insurgency.

READ MORE: Sudan's Bashir could be 'handed' over to ICC

Thirty years of power 

Bashir stayed in power for 30 years before being overthrown on April 11, 2019 after several months of unprecedented, youth-led street demonstrations.

Until the end, the idiosyncratic leader with the trademark cane, sometimes known to dance at political rallies, remained defiant, angrily labelling the protesters "traitors" and "rats" that should "return to their holes".

In the 1990s, under his mentor Turabi, Bashir had steered Sudan –– a country with a plethora of tribes and then divided between the mainly Muslim north and Christian or animist south –– towards an extreme interpretation of Islam.

For several years, Khartoum hosted the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before expelling him in 1996 under pressure from the United States. 

Bashir then shifted away from backing militants to improve relations with his opponents and neighbours.

It was under Bashir's rule that ethnically diverse Sudan saw the oil-rich south gain its independence in 2011 after two decades of conflict with the Arab Muslim north.

Current reforms 

The trial comes as Sudan's joint civilian-military transitional government is introducing a host of reforms and has relaunched peace talks with rebel groups.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok's administration has recently abolished rules which restricted women's movements, outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation, scrapped a law against apostasy, and relaxed a ban on alcohol.

On Friday, hundreds of people and supporters of Bashir took to the streets to protest against the government's decision to allow the consumption of alcohol.

Khartoum hopes soon to be taken off the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a significant hurdle to receiving foreign aid and investment.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies