KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Sudanese campaign group launched a legal bid on Sunday to halt Sudan's referendum on southern independence, accusing organisers of mishandling the process, a move which could derail the January 9 vote.
A group calling itself the Society Organisation Network instructed lawyers to take the case to court, accusing the referendum commission of placing SPLM members in senior posts and saying southerners in the north had been prevented from registering for the vote.
"We delivered the papers to the constitutional court today," said lawyer Qurashi al-Tom, who presented the case. "We are demanding a halt to the referendum process because we want to make sure we have a referendum that is free and fair."
He said there were 250 southern plaintiffs with complaints ranging from being refused registration to vote to intimidation, arrest and kidnapping of relatives in the south.
Southern leaders said the case had been stage-managed by the north's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to sabotage the vote, which most analysts expect to result in secession for the oil-producing south.
"It is an act of sabotage for the referendum," Yasir Arman, senior member of the South's dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), told Reuters.
"It is an open secret that the National Congress was preparing the ground for such an action -- this will not resolve issues."
Reporters were invited to attend a news conference given by the society by a senior NCP official. The NCP official denied any link to the group, which says it represents a network of southern civil society groups with thousands of members.
The commission organising the referendum was appointed almost three years late, and not sworn in until July this year, leaving them with an almost mission impossible to plan the vote.
The SPLM has refused any delay, fearing it would spark violence among expectant southerners which they would be unable to control.
The commission has had to cut corners -- including ignoring a deadline in the referendum law for voter registration to be completed three months ahead of the vote -- to be able to meet the January 9 date, which has left it legally vulnerable.
Lawyer al-Tom said that was one of the points raised before the constitutional court.
Political tensions are rising ahead of the vote which gives people from the resource-rich south a choice between secession and staying part of Sudan -- a plebiscite promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
The SPLM have accused Khartoum of plotting to disrupt the plebiscite to keep control of the region's oil while northern leaders say the SPLM is trying to manipulate the process to guarantee a vote for independence.