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US Lawmakers Jailed during Civil Disobedience Rally at Sudanese Embassy

Five U.S. congressmen have returned to work at the U.S. Capitol after being arrested Monday morning during a demonstration of civil disobedience in front of the Embassy of Sudan in Washington. The legislators, all members of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, called for an end to Sudanese government-sponsored violence and starvation tactics that they say are habitually deployed in the war in Darfur. They also demanded that foreign-based humanitarian aid and medical relief groups expelled from the region last month by Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir be allowed to return to care for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese displaced by the conflict. President Bashir ousted the groups after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Among the lawmakers handcuffed and detained was Congressman John Lewis, a colleague of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Others also charged by Washington, D.C. authorities with misdemeanors for crossing a police line included Democrats Keith Ellison, Lynn Woolsey, Donna Edwards, and Jim McGovern. The lawmakers were allowed to return to their Capitol Hill offices Monday, apparently in time to take part in some House of Representatives votes later in the day.

Monday’s arrest was a repeat offense for Massachusetts Congressman McGovern, who was jailed on 28 April 2006 in a similar Darfur protest outside the Sudan Embassy alongside the late Congressman Tom Lantos and others. This year’s rally was timed to coincide with President Obama’s completion this week of his first 100 days in office to demonstrate the urgent need to end the crisis and help save lives. McGovern recommends that American mediation efforts require nothing less than the prominent personal involvement of President Obama himself.

“I think we need to get President Obama personally involved in this. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. I think we need the president to devote his time and his personal political capital to help save the lives and end the killing and help broker a lasting and just peace. We need him to get on the phone and engage Sudan’s neighbors. We need him to talk to other African leaders and other world leaders to try to figure out a strategy to stop this. The goal here is to end the killing and to try to come up with a lasting solution, and I think that in order to do that, we’re going to need more than just a special envoy. We’re going to need the president’s personal involvement,” he maintained.

The conflict in Darfur flared up in 2003 when Khartoum government and Janjaweed militia resources were committed to conducting raids and countering attacks by an array of rebel groups based in the vast western region of Africa’s largest country. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have been killed, and more than three million have been displaced from their homes. Congressman McGovern says a top priority is to get Sudan to readmit the aid workers it threw out of the country last month.

“Each day more and more people are dying in Sudan and in Darfur. The Sudanese government threw out a bunch of humanitarian relief workers, including Save the Children and OXFAM, which means more people are going to die, not just from violence, but from sickness and from starvation. This has to change and the world has to act now,” he advised.

During last year’s presidential campaign, candidate Obama spoke out forcefully about pressuring the Bashir government to stop the violence. In the face of last month’s aid groups’ expulsion, President Obama named Retired Major General Scott Gration his Special Envoy for Sudan. In early April, Gration made his first official visit to the country and met with leading Sudanese government officials, although not with President Bashir. While welcoming the appointment, anti-genocide groups have urged the ambassador to keepup the pressure of sanctions and not let Sudanese expulsion orders intimidate the international community’s response to the conflict. Congressman McGovern says that international resolve can go a long way toward stopping the violence.

“I’m all for trying to find ways to resolve this. But I think we need to be clear that we’re not looking the other way in the face of these terrible atrocities. This is not just the responsibility of the United States.We believe it’s the responsibility of the world community. We need to talk with Sudan’s neighbors, put more pressure on countries like China and on Egypt, which continue to supply Sudan in terms of economic assistance, and in China’s case in terms of military assistance. But I think we need to understand that there’s a genocide going on. The government of Sudan just threw out a bunch of humanitarian aid workers who are doing nothing more than trying to help keep people alive in some of the most distraught places in the world,” he noted.

U.S. Special Envoy Gration is scheduled to return to Sudan in early May. In the aftermath of his first visit, President Bashir voiced satisfaction about opportunities for reaching an understanding with the Obama administration. He noted that during Ambassador Gration’s first visit, no mention was made by U.S. officials about the pending Criminal Court indictment. Congressman McGovern expressed the hope that U.S. negotiations will not lose sight of the basic goals of ending the violence in Darfur and securing a durable peace.

“The reason why I got arrested today was to stop the killing and to allow the humanitarian workers back in, and then to help lay the groundwork for a just and lasting peace. That’s what I am interested in. To the extent that the special envoy is focusing on those things to try to get movement on that, I’m all for that. There is a provision that will allow the indictment against Bashir to be postponed year by year by year. I think that all depends on the progress that is being made and on his willingness to let humanitarian workers back in, his willingness to stop the killing, and his willingness to be open to some sort of a process that will lead to a just and lasting peace,” he said.