Two Sudanese Catholic priests walked out the gates of Khartoum's Kobar Prison at 10 o'clock last Monday night, freed by presidential order after more than 16 months in jail on alleged insurrection charges.Fr. Hilary Boma, 58, and Fr. Lino Sebit, 33, went directly from the prison to St. Matthew's Cathedral, where they joined a late-night prayer vigil of local Christians led by Roman Catholic Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako.

By five o'clock the following afternoon, all but one of their 18 fellow defendants in the highly controversial case had also been released. One prisoner suffering from tuberculosis reportedly remained in a military hospital ward, pending completion of paperwork for his release.

According to reports over the state-controlled Radio Omdurman on December 6, Boma accepted a presidential "pardon," clearing the way for Khartoum's Islamist government to release all 20 southerners and drop the highly publicized case, which had become an international embarrassment for Sudan.

The two clerics had refused a blanket prisoner amnesty offered by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in late November, declaring they would wait for a "total acquittal" on what their church has insisted are false terrorism charges.

Speaking by telephone from Khartoum, a church source described the priests' apparent turn-around from their previous insistence on acquittal as a "slight concession" made with government officials. However, he rejected outright any suggestions that their acceptance of the pardon constituted a "confession" of involvement in the June 1998 explosions. Neither Boma nor Sebit were available for comment.

As Sudan's head of state, the president called his face-saving decision a "gesture of peace" marking the start of Ramadan, ...

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