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Activists Try To Sway Trump On Sudan Decision Before July Deadline

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Before leaving office, President Obama did something that surprised many human rights activists. He suspended some of the sanctions on Sudan, a government that the U.S. once accused of carrying out a genocide. The Trump administration now has to decide by July 12 whether to stick with this approach. And activists on both sides are making their cases, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Ryan Boyette, who runs a news agency in a remote part of Sudan, created a short virtual reality video about the Nuba Mountain region where he lives.

RYAN BOYETTE: I've now brought it to congressmen, State Department. We've shown it to them. And it's really been eye-opening for a lot of people because we can't take members of the U.S. Congress and State Department and bring them to the Nuba Mountains.

KELEMEN: The region is off-limits to American officials as Sudan wages what he calls a war of attrition against a rebel movement and atrocities against civilians. He wants viewers of the film to get the real picture.

BOYETTE: It might be the first time any of them have heard actual people speaking from the Nuba Mountains. And when you put on the virtual reality, you see the environment that they're living in. A lot of people have become quite emotional when they watch it.

KELEMEN: While Boyette was making the rounds in Washington, the Sudanese government was hiring a lobbying firm - Squire Patton Boggs - for $40,000 a month. The firm says in its disclosure forms that its job is to avoid the snapback of U.S. sanctions. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert says all this is being reviewed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING0

HEATHER NAUERT: We're not sure what is going to happen with the sanctions. The State Department is monitoring whether or not Sudan has sustained positive actions that gave rise to the executive order that was put in place earlier this year.

KELEMEN: Sudan is supposed to meet five goals, which include counterterrorism cooperation, as well as ceasefires and more humanitarian access to war zones within Sudan. A former U.S. envoy on Sudan, Princeton Lyman, says he thinks the diplomatic approach is working, using sanctions relief as leverage.

PRINCETON LYMAN: This is a very preliminary first step opening a serious dialogue with Sudan.

KELEMEN: And Lyman, who's now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, believes the Trump administration can build on this approach and seek more changes from a government that the U.S. once accused of carrying out a genocide in Darfur.

LYMAN: What really matters to me is what you do next. Because then you have to open up in the next round issues of human rights, political prisoners, for the work on the peace process. So it's a step-by-step process. And it is purposely limited on both sides.

KELEMEN: The problem is the Trump administration has been slow to fill top diplomatic positions, and that worries Ryan Boyette, the American living in one of Sudan's many war zones.

BOYETTE: So this policy was set in place, and it's kind of going on autopilot with no one making a decision from the new administration saying, this is a good idea or a bad idea.

KELEMEN: Activists have been writing letters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of the July 12 deadline on a sanctions decision. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says Sudan has demolished churches and arrested several pastors in recent months and doesn't deserve sanctions relief now. The Enough Project says the State Department should delay its decision until Sudan makes more progress and the Trump administration has more officials focused on Africa. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF D.P.KAUFMAN'S "BRAVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.