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PROFILE: Hassan al-Turabi - Khartoum’s jailed eminence grise

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Al-Turabi

KHARTOUM/NAIROBI, Aug 05, 2004 (dpa) — Hassan al-Turabi has many epithets, including "chief ideologue on global Islamism", "spiritual leader", and "respected intellectual".

The man who exercises power behind the scenes in Khartoum has been in prison since March - put there by his former ally, Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir.

It is not Turabi’s first spell in prison. He was arrested this time on suspicion of plotting a coup, but the government clearly fears the frail little man with remarkable mental and verbal powers.

He is said to have an enormous influence on Islamic groups in Sudan, and also has alleged links with one of the rebel groups in Darfur, JEM (Justice and Equality Movement). His power clearly stretches far beyond the city gates of Khartoum.

According to Ugandan columnist Abdul-Raheem Tajudeen, writing in New Vision newspaper, "Darfur is a victim of the split within the National Islamic Front personified by detained former spiritual leader of the organisation, Dr Hassan al-Turabi and his former protege, General Omar al-Bashir, the president.

"Al-Turabi’s support is very strong in Darfur, and because of that Darfur is enemy territory for the government".

Three weeks ago, Turabi began a hunger strike in protest at the government’s suppression of the opposition in Sudan. His imminent release was reported last week, but so far Turabi has only reached the police hospital.

Hassan Abdallah Dafa’allah al-Turabi was born in Kassala in eastern Sudan in 1932. His family has a long tradition in academia and Sufism, the mystical and spiritual dimension of Islam.

His father was a religious judge and encouraged his son to study Islam.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Turabi obtained a law degree from Khartoum University, a Master of Arts in Law from the University of London and a law doctorate from France’s Sorbonne university.

Having co-founded the Sudanese Moslem Brotherhood in 1954, Turabi left his legal career and became a political activist in the 1960s.

He married Wisal al-Mahdi, sister of Umma Party leader Sadiq al- Mahdi and descendant of a Sudanese legend, the leader of the Mahdi uprising against the British in the 1880s.

After a military coup in 1969, Turabi was imprisoned for seven years, during which time he is said to have memorized the entire Koran and learned a number of foreign languages.

In the 1980s, Turabi founded the National Islamic Front with other Islamic leaders. After forming a coalition with Sadiq al- Mahdi, Turabi was appointed minister of justice, later minister of foreign affairs and finally deputy prime minister.

When the current president Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup in 1989, Turabi was again thrown imprisoned, but was released when he promised to work with Bashir.

In 1996, he was made speaker of parliament until he fell out with Bashir a few years later. Turabi was stripped of his role as speaker, but went on to form the Popular National Congress. He has since become the most prominent Islamist in opposition.

Analysts say the mild-mannered Turabi is the mastermind behind the political, ideological and organizational development of the Islamic movement in Sudan. He is mainly responsible for steering Sudan toward the use of sharia or Islamic law as a system of governance.

Turabi has expressed pride that Sudan was listed by the United States as one of the countries supporting terrorism, and both the terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden were welcome in Sudan when Turabi was in power.

But he is still behind bars. A possible rebellion in the army, which draws many of its soldiers from Darfur where Turabi has strong support, could offer him the opportunity to regain power.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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