Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights in Sudan Raise Domestic, International Concerns

Sudan- Press freedom sudan
Sudanese journalists protest against a proposed new press law that aims to tighten restrictions on media freedom, at the headquarters of the National Council for Press and Publications in the capital Khartoum on November 15, 2017. Photo AFP

As the economic crisis in Sudan worsens, threatening grave political and social consequences, the security services are tightening their grip on all aspects of public life by restricting a range of rights and freedoms, including the freedom of association and expression and the right to protest.

“I have expressed my concern to government officials regarding the response of the Sudanese authorities to the January and February [2018] protests,” said Aristide Nononsi, the UN independent expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, during a press conference in Khartoum on 23 April 2018 after a ten-day visit to the country.

He added, “I have received reports that human rights advocates, political activists and journalists were arrested and detained in connection with protests against denounced austerity measures in the 2018 budget. I was particularly worried about their physical and mental conditions during their detention.” However, he welcomed the presidential decree to release some political detainees and demanded that the rest should be released too, especially those detained under the state of emergency in troubled Darfur.

Speaking to Fanack Chronicle, human rights activist Al-Buraq al-Nazir said, “The laws that restrict freedom of expression, association and demonstration and other basic rights are the main impediment to development and human rights. The government claims that these laws are derived from Islamic sharia and Islamic religion.”

Opposition groups, international organizations and academic institutions argue that these laws only serve the interests of ruling elites and that the authorities’ application of these laws may expose Sudan to anarchy, threatening the very country’s survival.

Public Order Law

Perhaps the most pervasive of these laws is the Public Order Law of 1996. Initially enforced in Khartoum and later enacted in other states, the law aims to control citizens’ behaviour and appearance, particularly women.

For example, Article 152 of the law states, ‘Whoever commits in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals, or wears an obscene outfit, or contrary to public morals, or causes an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging, which may not exceed 40 lashes, or with a fine or with both.’ The definition of ‘an obscene outfit’ is left open to interpretation by individual police officers. In 2016, more than 45,000 complaints were issued against women under the law, according to activists.

Kamal al-Jazuli, a prominent human rights activist, said the Public Order Law applicable in Khartoum views women with suspicion. Through its discriminatory provisions, the law seeks to restrict women’s mobility and activities in the public arena. In addition, the broad language and discretionary powers granted to those enforcing it, allow the security services to target women, particularly prostitutes and others who use marginal economic activities to earn their living. The law is also used to pursue and humiliate women activists and politicians such as Winnie Omar, who was arrested twice, on one occasion for alleged involvement in prostitution. Although she was acquitted, the mere detention of women on such charges has severe social consequences for them in that conservative society.

National Security Law

The National Security Law is used as a legislative and legal tool to commit human rights violations. Despite several amendments, the main features of the law have remained the same for years.

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies documented a number of incidents where Sudanese authorities interfered with freedom of the media and freedom of expression in May and June 2018. On three occasions, the authorities confiscated printed copies of three Sudanese daily newspapers without providing any justification. In May, the National Intelligence and Security Services ordered chief editors of Sudanese publications not to publish any news related to the death of a businessman who died while in custody. The chief editors were also prohibited from reporting on the prevailing fuel crisis. In June, the Sudanese foreign media department revoked the press credentials of Ahmed Yousif, a correspondent for the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat.

Khalid Yusuf, deputy head of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party, said: “The government’s words are not followed by actions on the ground. I was personally arrested last year. Later, I was released under a general pardon in the name of opening a new chapter and launching national dialogue, but I was arrested again.”

The Sudanese security apparatus is known for using various forms of physical and psychological torture to terrorize its political opponents and break their will. Even some of its own members have been subjected to torture and abuse when they tried to leave the apparatus, including the incumbent director, General Salah Qosh, who was arrested in 2012 on charges of participating in the coup attempt against President Omar al-Bashir.

Despite a decline in the systematic use of severe physical torture since the 1990s, new practices designed to suppress political opponents have become prevalent in detention facilities, as in the case of Namat Adam Jamaa, who was forced to sit on an uncomfortable chair facing a wall in the direct sun for more than ten hours.

In addition, the design of detention facilities is a form of torture in itself. The temperature is lowered or raised to uncomfortable levels, and a large number of detainees are confined in a small area without being allowed to move around or receive visitors. Moreover, detainees do not receive health care and are denied life-saving medicines.

Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act

Plans are underway to amend existing laws, including the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act, to suggest that there is a positive change in the country’s legal system.

The act came into force in early 2006, when the country experienced unprecedented openness following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the endorsement of the Interim Constitution in 2005. However, it soon became clear that the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act, a revised draft of which was released in 2017, and the Regulator Authority established under it were not what civil society was looking for.

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law concluded that the act makes it very difficult for national and international non-governmental and civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate in Sudan because of burdensome registration requirements. Moreover, CSOs that publicly disagree with the government are subject to fines and penalties.

Glimmer of Hope

Despite this widespread repression, some believe there is a glimmer of hope. Nononsi cited activists he had met as acknowledging some improvement in human rights in recent months. He paid special attention to Darfur, noting that the ceasefire in the state is generally holding but that threats of violence and attacks against civilians continue to exist in other forms, including ethnic and sexual violence and kidnapping. He also called on the Sudanese government to focus on implementing the provisions of the Doha Peace Document concerning the disbanding and disarmament of armed militias in Darfur.

It seems that tangible progress in human rights not only depends on the efforts of Sudanese civil society, which has been severely hampered by government restrictions, but also on the pressure exerted by the international community on the government, which needs international acceptance more than ever. Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary of the US Treasury, who visited Khartoum in late April 2018, called on the Sudanese government to make further progress on freedoms and human rights in order to normalize relations with the United States.

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