Sudan opposition leader returns from self-exile

Mahdi, 81, accused pro-government paramilitary forces of rape

KHARTOUM - Sudanese opposition leader and ex-prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi returned to the country on Thursday more than two years after he fled abroad, his party said.
Mahdi, whose civilian government was overthrown in a 1989 coup that brought President Omar al-Bashir to power, flew in to Khartoum, said his daughter Mariam al-Mahdi, deputy head of the Umma party.
She said that authorities prevented several supporters from entering the airport to welcome Mahdi.
A fixture of Sudanese politics since the 1960s, Mahdi was prime minister from 1966 to 1967 and again from 1986 to 1989.
He left Sudan in August 2014, a few weeks after being released following a month in custody on treason-related charges that could have seen him face the death penalty.
Mahdi, 81, had been arrested after accusing pro-government paramilitary forces of rape in western Sudan's Darfur region.
His detention led to large-scale protests at the time calling for the fall of Bashir's government, which were violently dispersed by authorities.
The case sparked concern from Western governments but Mahdi was released after his legal team appealed to the justice minister to drop or suspend the charges. The exact status of the charges is not clear.
The Umma party is one of Sudan's oldest political institutions. Mahdi is also revered by followers in his Ansar al-Islam movement, a key component of the party.
While in exile Mahdi signed a controversial agreement joining Umma in an alliance with other opposition parties and a number of rebel groups from the war-torn Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur regions.
In a statement in November Mahdi had called for a three-day nationwide strike against Bashir's regime, amid mounting anger over fuel subsidy cuts and other economic problems.
Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide related to the conflict in Darfur, has been accused of systematic repression of the opposition.
Sudanese lawmakers voted in December to bring back the post of prime minister, a position abolished after Bashir's Islamist-backed putsch against Mahdi in 1989.
In October, after a quarter-century in power, Bashir concluded a year-long national dialogue aimed at resolving the insurgencies in Sudan's border regions and healing the country's crisis-wracked economy.
The talks, launched in October 2015, were boycotted by most mainstream opposition and armed groups.