KHARTOUM (Reuters) â€” A sea of white-clothed mourners laid Sudanese editor Mohammad Taha to rest on Thursday after he was kidnapped and killed by unknown armed men, raising fears of a new brand of extreme violence in Sudan.
Taha’s decapitated body was found dumped on a dirt road on Wednesday. He had drawn protests from Islamic groups last year by reprinting a series of articles questioning the roots of the Prophet Mohammad.
Amid cries of “There is no God but God” and “God is Greatest”, thousands attended his funeral, including government ministers who sat alongside journalists and Taha’s family.
“The authorities have to get these people â€” it’s their responsibility,” said Taha’s uncle, Nasrallah Ali Mustafa.
Hundreds of riot police lined the streets of central Khartoum and near the cemetery in a show of force by the interior minister whose resignation was demanded by hundreds of mourners at the morgue on Wednesday after Taha’s body was found.
Sudanese were shocked by the gruesome crime, the first of its kind, and commentators voiced widespread concern it may be the start of a worrying new and violent trend.
“Something must be done before the abduction phenomenon develops into a practice,” said state-owned Sudan Vision, which printed in black and white only.
The semi-independent Watan paper said: “When you open this evil door to hell and knives and bullets take the place of the pen, this means we are…. on the path to chaos.” Police said they had made some arrests but no one has claimed responsibility for his death and authorities admit they are at a loss as to who committed the crime.
“The circumstances are very murky,” said journalist Sabah Mohammad Hassan. “This is the first time we see something like this in the history of this country.”Â
Analyst and expert on Islamic groups, Diaa Rashwan, said it was likely to be local jihadists imitating Al Qaeda. He linked it to rising extremism in the Middle East.
The picture viewed by a Reuters witness of Taha’s body, hands and legs tied with his head lying next to his corpse, evoked spectres of similar crimes in Iraq.
Mainly Muslim Sudan is under Islamic Sharia Law in the north, but while it has suffered multiple regional civil wars, it has not yet seen the extremist violence that has surfaced in the Middle East.
Taha himself was an Islamist, but his criticism of other Islamic groups angered people. In the 1990s, an attempt was made on his life after he wrote an article about Islamist leader Hassan Turabi which offended many.
Last year, Taha was tried and his paper closed for three months for blasphemy, but sources said he was under close protection by the government during his time in prison.
Some of Khartoum’s Islamic groups protested angrily at his trial shouting threatening slogans.
“Sudan is in a very critical situation now with the UN Security Council resolution … and I think this is very dangerous,” Rashwan said, adding, “I’m very worried.” A week ago the Security Council passed a resolution to begin deploying more than 20,000 troops and police to Sudan’s western Darfur region by year-end. Khartoum has rejected the plan, likening it to a Western invasion that would attract jihadists and create an Iraq-like quagmire.
Sudanese Islamists have vowed to fight any foreign “invaders”.
Â â€˜Closing the spaceâ€™
Khartoum is also facing growing internal dissent from opposition parties who have tried to stage protests twice in the last two weeks to challenge the government over rising prices.
Riot police used tear gas on Wednesday to break up a demonstration. On Thursday, 53 people, including senior opposition party members, appeared in court after spending a night in jail accused of disturbing the peace.
Alex Vines, head of Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said there is a “deteriorating atmosphere” in Khartoum and a hardening of the government’s position as it comes under international pressure over Darfur and domestically over the economy.
“This is all part of the closing of the space as the government feels under threat,” he said.