One of Barack Obama’s last acts in office was to scale back a 20-year-old trade embargo on Sudan. The move has been criticised by human rights groups, which have called it “premature” and “despicable”, but has the country and its President, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, done enough to merit a more relaxed approach?

This is the question debated in a televised discussion on Al Jazeera between a Sudanese scholar and human rights activist, and a Belgian academic.

Professor Hassan Makki and activist Hafiz Mohammad agree that removing the sanctions is “good news” for the people of Sudan, whom academic Harry Verhoeven agrees have been most “harmed” by the sanctions – rather than the government they targeted.

“Sudan is not a poor country,” says Verhoeven, “but it has lots of poor people” – a problem he puts down to “mismanagement”. He says lifting the sanctions is “necessary but insufficient” and that serious “reform” is needed in the government to effect real change.

The move follows the six-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, as the residents of the disputed, oil-rich region of Abyei (which straddles the border) still await a promised referendum, with the vast majority thought to favour joining South Sudan.

Sudan’s government has been accused of serious human rights abuses. Since South Sudan’s independence, President Omar al-Bashir has reasserted Sudan as an Islamic state governed by Sharia.

Sudan is no. 5 on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Several Christian pastors have faced trial for alleged actions against the state, including espionage and attempting to defame the government. One is currently on trial, alongside a Czech aid worker and Darfuri graduate, awaiting the verdict of their Khartoum trial, expected on 23 January.