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Squeezing Sudan

Portland-based members of the Fur tribe, one of the largest Sudanese tribes, are trumpeting legislation which they hope will help end killing an ocean away in Africa. Senator Ethan Strimling (D-Portland) has sponsored a bill to make the Maine State Retirement System sell its holdings in businesses investing or operating in the northeast African country of Sudan. Maine supporters, including the Fur, say cutting off money will help end genocide in the region known as Darfur (which means "home of the Fur"). But opponents wonder whether the bill will do more harm than good.

The public hearing before the Labor Committee, scheduled for January 31, is the first round in legislative vetting of the bill. Legislation lampooned in committee has historically little chance of later being voted into law.

The international movement to divest from Sudan is gaining ground stateside the way grassroots opposition to apartheid in South Africa gained steam in the 1980s. The Islamist Sudanese government has killed 180,000 black Africans and displacing 1.8 million in the Darfur province since 2003, according to United Nations estimates. Since April 2004, three states have divested holdings and at least 12 more, including Maine and Massachusetts, are currently considering bills to divest, says Chad Hazlett, a political coordinator for the Sudan Divestment Task Force, which is associated with the Genocide Intervention Network in Washington, DC.

Some state Republican leaders worry the idea has no proven benefit. House Minority Leader David Bowles (R-Sanford), says strangling companies in Sudan will only cause Sudanese to lose jobs.

"Even when a number of big state retirement funds in the United States divested from South Africa, itís very well documented that all it did was hurt the people and it didnít have any impact on regime change," says Bowles. "This is a feel-good exercise. To think that the legislatureís voting to divest holdings is going to have any impact whatsoever is, in my opinion, silly."

But the group Fur Cultural Renewal of New England, based in Portland, believe this bill can help their countrymen avoid further persecution in Sudan. Sixty Sudanese members of the Fur tribe live in Portland. The Fur Cultural Renewal community is the largest Fur group in the US.

"If this passes, itís going to be better," says Mohamad Ali, an organizer in the Portland Fur community whose mother and other family members live in Sudan. Ali plans to rally as many Fur as possible to attend the upcoming public hearing on the bill.

According to Conflict Securities Advisory Group, in Washington DC, the state has invested $50 million in 18 companies with holdings in Sudan.

Maine State Treasurer David Lemoine says Maine has divested for political reasons twice before - from South Africa and from Northern Ireland, both during the 1980s. Lemoine, who supports the bill, says previous state divestments were possible politically and legally because they were part of a powerful international human rights campaign.

The public hearing on the bill, LD 1758, will be held at 1 pm on January 31 in room 220 at the Cross State Office Building, Augusta. On January 13, Peopleís Free Space will screen the documentary film "Stopping Genocide" at 7 pm at 144 Cumberland Avenue, Portland. Admission is free. A panel with members of Fur Cultural Renewal will discuss the conflict in Sudan after the screening.

Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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