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Khartoum - Eight anti-government protesters were sentenced to jail in Sudan late Thursday, state media reported, the first such punishments handed down by emergency courts introduced by President Omar al-Bashir to contain rallies demanding an end to his iron-fisted rule.

The eight were among hundreds who had taken to the streets earlier on Thursday in Khartoum and Omdurman, defying a ban on protests that first erupted in December over bread prices and have since gained momentum and presented a major challenge to Bashir's three decades in power. 

Chanting their rallying cry of "freedom, peace, justice," the crowds gathered in several districts of the two cities before being confronted by security forces with tear gas, witnesses said.

Bashir has not only banned all unauthorised rallies but also given sweeping powers to security forces to carry out raids and personal searches as part of the state of emergency imposed after an initial crackdown failed to quell the protests.

The eight protesters sent to jail for participating in protests were handed terms ranging from six months to five years by three separate courts in Khartoum set up on Tuesday to investigate violations under the state of emergency imposed by Bashir to quell the protests.

Four of them were sentenced to five years in jail, three to three years and one for six months, the official SUNA news agency reported, adding they had been accused of violating a state of emergency order banning participation in protests.

They are the first such accused found guilty of violating directives issued by Bashir as part of the nationwide state of emergency he imposed last week.

In a separate statement, the Democratic Lawyers Alliance that is part of an umbrella group spearheading the movement against Bashir's rule said 870 protesters were produced in emergency courts in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman on Thursday.

It said the courts dismissed cases against a large number of accused, but scores were sentenced to jail terms ranging from two weeks to one month.

- 'No alternative' -

Protesters had earlier expressed defiance as they took to the streets.

"We came out today because we have no alternative," Siddiq, who gave only his first name for security reasons, said.

"The only alternative we have is to overthrow this regime. We will continue despite the state of emergency."

Deadly clashes surrounding protests have rocked Sudan for more than two months, with demonstrators gathering since December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.

But years of anger over the country's economic woes turned the protests into nationwide rallies against Bashir's rule, with people calling on him to step down.

Officials say 31 people have died in protest-related violence so far, while Human Rights Watch says at least 51 have been killed, including medics and children.

The authorities have cracked down on demonstrations, detaining hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, activists and journalists.

- Sudan slams West -

Hours after Bashir declared the state of emergency, security agents detained a prominent editor for criticising the move in a televised interview.

Osman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Tayar, was taken away by security agents from his office, and his family said on Thursday they were still unaware of his whereabouts.

Bashir, who swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, has remained defiant in the face of protests.

Last week he also dissolved the federal and provincial governments and appointed 16 army officers and two officers from the feared National Intelligence and Security Service as provincial governors.

He has also pushed on with top-level changes to his administration that saw him sacking longtime ally and first vice president Bakri Hassan Saleh.

The United States, Britain, Norway and Canada have criticised the state of emergency as a "return to military rule".

"Allowing security forces to act with impunity will further erode human rights, governance and effective economic management," the four countries said in a joint statement Tuesday.

"The return to military rule does not create a conducive environment for a renewed political dialogue or credible elections."

Khartoum hit back at the rebuke on Wednesday, saying it was an "intervention" in the country's internal affairs.

"The state of emergency will not impact freedoms of people and their rights," the foreign ministry said.

AFP