KHARTOUM, (AFP) — Twelve Sudanese journalists covering a a meeting at the opposition communist party headquarters were among 16 people arrested in Khartoum, a party spokesman said on Thursday.
“Twelve journalists working for (communist party newspaper) Al-Maidan, including five women, were arrested last night (Wednesday),” Saddiq Yussef told AFP, revising an earlier number he had given of just two.
He said the arrests took place after a meeting of opposition activists at the party headquarters, at around 11:00 pm, when the cars the journalists were travelling in were chased by security officers and 12 of them were taken away.
Another four people were also arrested in the swoop, including members of the party, added Yussef, who provided the names of all those detained.
The women were later released but ordered to report to security officials on Thursday, the communist party official said.
There was no immediate confirmation of the arrests, which follow an outburst of localised but vocal anti-government protests in north Sudan this week, organised by student activists via the Internet, and a sharp media crackdown.
More than 10 journalists were held on Sunday, including an AFP cameraman, during the demonstrations in Khartoum that called for regime change, civil liberties and an end to debilitating price rises.
Fresh protests took place on Thursday in the town of Sennar, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) southeast of Khartoum, where some 200 students took to the streets demanding change before being scattered by riot police who fired tear gas, witnesses and a student said.
All week the police have used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters, more than 70 of whom have been detained.
One student demonstrator beaten by police on Sunday died of his wounds later, his fellow students said. The police denied the claim, and warned against “rumours which are aimed at undermining security and stability.”
Jehanne Henry, the head of research on Sudan for Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday that the arrests of those outside the communist party’s headquarters appeared to be unrelated to the protests but were part of a pattern.
“This fits in with the restrictions on the freedom of expression in Sudan, and the continued use of the national security apparatus, which has a long history of ill treatment and torture, to detain journalists and activists,” she said.
Amnesty International called for the release of the 16 journalists and activists detained on Wednesday.
“The Sudanese government must immediately release all those detained during this blatant attempt to stifle free speech,” Amnesty’s Africa Programme director Erwin van der Borght said in a statement.
In addition to rounding up journalists, the authorities blocked the distribution of two independent newspapers on Monday.
The student and youth groups organising the protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and neighbouring Egypt, are demanding a new government, job opportunities and the resolution of Sudan’s economic crisis that has driven up food and fuel prices as the cash-strapped government seeks to cut subsidies.
Demonstrations also took place in the capital on Tuesday, in Al-Kalakla district of south Khartoum and at Al-Nilein University, where five Darfuri students were arrested.
Top officials in Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party have called the protests illegal and say the government does not fear popular uprisings of the kind that have rocked the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Widespread economic and political discontent have provoked sporadic street protests in north Sudan in past weeks, with security forces maintaining tight control in Khartoum.