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Muntaser Ibrahim

World Academy of Sciences

Renowned Sudanese geneticist behind bars for opposing regime

A leading Sudanese geneticist has been imprisoned for speaking out against the country’s repressive regime. Muntaser Ibrahim, who heads the University of Khartoum’s Institute of Endemic Diseases, was arrested on 21 February in Khartoum and has been detained ever since. His friends and family do not know his location. They say Ibrahim suffers from a heart condition that requires specialist care.

Ibrahim’s colleagues and students issued a statement calling for his release on Friday. “It is deplorable that a scholar such as Professor Ibrahim remains in prison, rather than classroom and research centres,” the text reads.

Ibrahim took part in peaceful antiregime protests in recent months, according to the statement; he was arrested twice in early January but released shortly after both times. The third and final arrest came as Ibrahim planned to deliver suggestions for national reform drawn up by him and other University of Khartoum lecturers to Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir. “Professor Ibrahim and his colleagues genuinely believed that their initiative could provide a satisfactory way out of the crisis, but the dictatorial authority saw otherwise, hence his repeated incarceration,” reads the statement, which is unsigned.

Ibrahim is one of Sudan’s most distinguished living scholars. He studies the genetics of malaria, cancer, and other diseases, as well as genomic diversity in Sudan, and has contributed to international studies investigating human genetic variation in Africa. He is a founding member of the Sudanese National Academy of Science (SNAS) in Khartoum and a member of the World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy.

“[Ibrahim] is a leading scientist of genetics, a supervisor of many students, and a member of several scientific associations in country and abroad,” says parasitologist and SNAS member Suad Sulaiman. “His imprisonment will deprive science and research of his contributions.”

Ibrahim’s arrest is bad for the morale of scientists living in Sudan, adds Dia-Eldin Ahmed Elnaiem, a Sudanese parasitologist based at the University of Maryland in Princess Anne. “All he did was a simple objection to human rights abuse and a peaceful call for democratic change in the country.” It’s also discouraging scientists who want to work on Sudanese problems, says Elnaiem, who regularly returns to his homeland to do fieldwork on leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection transmitted by sandflies.

The statement urges international scientists to rally behind their campaign to release Ibrahim.

Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who has published papers with Ibrahim, says she is “appalled” at the news. “He is a top scientist in the country” as well as “a kind and gentle person who does not deserve this treatment,” Tishkoff wrote in an email. “I hope that the leaders in the Sudan will recognize his important contributions to their country and will release him.”

The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), also headquartered in Trieste, says Ibrahim has been “highly instrumental and active in ensuring our success in Africa” while serving on the center’s council of scientific advisers from 2004 to 2013. “The ICGEB believes that science has no border or political color and that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.”

In mid-December 2018, the cost of living rose abruptly in Sudan, with the price of bread tripling, among other things. Youth, women, and children have taken to the streets demanding change, often facing hard-handed retaliation by the government of Al-Bashir, who came to power in a military coup in 1989. Some protesters have died.