In light of the recent crackdown on students protesting peacefully in Sudan, attacks on civil society organisations and judicial persecution of human rights defenders, CIVICUS speaks to a Sudanese human rights defender, who asked to remain anonymous, to shed light on the challenging environment in which civil society operates.
Q: How would you describe the state of human rights in Sudan at the moment?
There are a number of urgent human rights challenges that Sudan faces at the moment and with some it has been facing for a long time. These human rights challenges are compounded by economic and political crises. To start with, the Human Rights Commission, created as a mechanism to protect and promote human rights is very weak. There are consistent violations of the rights to expression, association and assembly and these restrictions are at variance with international human rights standards.
Human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists are targeted for simply expressing their views and documenting and reporting human rights violations as are media agencies and civil society organisations. In general, the enabling environment for civil society is extremely restricted and those who express views contrary to those of the government do so at great risk to their lives. The authorities regularly use force to disperse peaceful assemblies. Armed conflicts in South Kordfan and the Blue Nile make it even more dangerous for HRDs and journalists to carry out their activities in these areas. The effect of the conflict on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Sudanese is appalling and the failure to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts makes Sudan very volatile.
Q: Please shed some light on the arrests and detention of the director and staff of non-governmental organisation TRACKs
On 26 March 2015 officers from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) raided the offices of TRACKs – a civil society organisation based in Khartoum, while they were conducting training on human rights. The NISS officials confiscated computers of the trainers and took into detention TRACKS staff and other participants attending the training. They also opened a case against TRACKs director Khalafalla Alafif and trainer and HRD Adil Bakheit. Both of them face charges under Article 21 (Joint Acts in the Execution of Criminal Conspiracy), Article 24 (Criminal Conspiracy), Article 50 (Undermining the Constitutional System), Article 51 (Waging War Against the State), Article 63 (Calling for Opposition to Public Authority by Use of Violent or Criminal Force), Article 66 (Publication of False News) and Article 93 (Impersonating a Public Servant) of the 1991 Criminal Act. All these charges are very serious but Article 50 and Article 51 are categorised as crimes against the state and carry the death penalty.
On 29 February 2016 the NISS, again, raided the TRACKs premises, confiscated electronic equipment and documents and subjected staff to repeated summonses following the raids. The passports of several NISS staff were confiscated during the raid and have not been returned. Again on 22 May 2016, Khalafalla Alafif and Adil Bakheit were detained together with about six other staff members and others associated with TRACKs at the Office of the Prosecutor for State Security. Sadly the TRACKs director Khalafalla Alafif suffers from a heart condition and was sent to the Police Hospital in Khartoum on 25 May and brought back to the Office of the Prosecutor for State Security for detention on the same day.
The state has used judicial harassment to target and intimidate journalists over the last ten years and I think now they want to use the same weapon against civil society organisations and human rights defenders. In the past the NISS and Sudanese authorities would just detain activists and intimidate them for several days and later release them without any charges and without mentioning why they were arrested in the first place.
Q: How do the actions of the National Intelligence and Security Service towards civil society affect civic space in general?
Following the closure of 13 human rights organisations in 2009 and another five in 2012 most of the genuine human rights organisations resorted to self-censorship and some of them stopped working in conflict areas. Most have re-directed their focus towards marginalised areas and camps for internally displaced persons. This has affected the monitoring and documentation of human rights violations and restricted the number and scope of trainings on human rights and limited the prevalence of civic education. At the same time the NISS and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) established their own human rights organisations. These government created organisations compete with independent non-governmental organisations sometimes for fundraising for their operations and this reduces funding opportunities for independent non-governmental organisations and the work they do.
Q: What were the reasons behind the recent student protests and how did the authorities respond?
There are many reasons behind recent protests by university students. The main reason is the effect of the economic crisis on education. The cost of education continues to increase and this means fees are higher and the cost of living in student hostels continues to increase. In addition, the students were against a decision by the government to sell some buildings at some universities to investors from the Gulf region. The government plans to transform some of these buildings into tourist sites. The violent response of the government to the students protest resulted in the protests spreading from one university to other universities where protestors were now condemning the unlawful killing of students. The Sudanese government has in the past restricted freedom of assembly and used violence against peaceful protests so the response to the recent student protests was no different. The authorities used brute force to disperse protesters and one student was killed and many injured.
Q: What are three things that need to change for the human rights situation to improve?
The government of Sudan should fulfil its international obligations to promote and protect human rights. The government and parties to the conflict in three major states should exercise the necessary political will to address political problems. Lastly, the government must secure a proper environment for national dialogue in order to transform the country into a democracy.
Q: How can international civil society support Sudanese civil society groups?
The solidarity of international civil society is very important particularly around advocacy with the government to create more space for Sudanese civil society to work freely. Sudanese civil society needs the support of the international community particularly international civil society organisations to advocate and put pressure on the government to reform the Voluntary Act of 2006 and the Security Act of 2010 so that they are in line with international human rights standards. International civil society can also assist Sudanese civil society organisations to develop capacity in different areas including human rights protection, digital security, finance and administration.