No sign of civic freedoms improving, despite activists' release
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Sudanese authorities' continual harassment of the Khartoum Centre for Training and Human Development (TRACKs) symbolises the prevalence of state interference in civil society operations. On 5th March 2017, three human rights defenders affiliated with TRACKs were released after ten months in arbitrary detention. Khalafalla Al-Afif Mukhtar, Midhat A. Hamdan and Mustafa Adam were initially arrested in May 2016, along with seven other activists involved in two overlapping cases. After being forced to pay a fine of 50,000 Sudanese pounds (approx 7,376 EUR) each, the three were released from Al-Huda prison in Omdurman. From the outset, many questioned the allegations and the integrity of the judicial process. In a statement, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (an FIDH-OMCT partnership) and the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) commented on the situation:
“Although we welcome the long-awaited release of Khalafalla Al-Afif Mukhtar, Midhat A. Hamdan and Mustafa Adam, we strongly condemn their conviction and the punitive fines handed down and reiterate that they should never have been prosecuted in the first place...Furthermore, the court order to legally confiscate the equipment seized by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) during its raid of TRACKs’ premises because these allegedly constitute a danger to the State is very worrisome".
The ten-month-long detentions on flimsy allegations of "disseminating false information" and "espionage" indicates a troubling situation wherein authorities' hostility towards independent civil society manifests itself in cases of judicial harassment. Similarly, while international groups have celebrated the activists' release, many other outspoken Sudanese human rights defenders, such as Ibrahim Mudawi, still languish behind bars.
On 3rd April 2017, Muhajed Abdallah, a journalist banned from publishing, spoke out about the state's mechanisms for controlling media outlets. In particular, he noted the use of the country's Security Act to summon, detain and prevent journalists from publishing. The use of security forces to prevent news from reaching circulation has also been a key concern for media rights groups. In fact, the latest report by the Sudanese Journalist Network, covering the last quarter of 2016, found 58 violations of media freedom. These violations included 38 cases in which newspapers were confiscated and eleven cases of the authorities arresting or summoning journalists.
On 9th April 2017, a protest in the West Darfur camp turned violent after security forces used lethal force against demonstrators protesting the Sudanese authorities' proposal to move a local market to a new location. The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the camp voiced their opposition to the plans, claiming that their security could be in jeopardy if forced to walk a kilometre to the new location. Local eye-witnesses testified that Sudanese security forces purposefully set fire to market stalls, as the crowd attempted to prevent the market's relocation. In a statement, a local elder commented on the rapid escalation of the confrontation, stating:
“This morning, they ignited the market stalls, which angered the camp residents who in turn set fire to the police post and a number of locality buildings".
Two women and a child were killed as security forces used live ammunition to disperse the crowd. A further nine protesters were injured in the clashes, five of them seriously. On 11th April 2017, the government of Sudan committed to creating a committee that would investigate incident.
In a separate incident, on 10th April 2017, residents of Alawaj village in White Nile State protested over the lack of safe drinking water. Villages in the surrounding area have suffered due to a five-month water crisis. There were no reports of the protest turning violent.
In March 2017, the Confederation of Sudanese Civil Society Organisations published a new study analysing the legal framework governing CSOs in Sudan. The study coincided with 2017's proposed amendments to the Humanitarian and Voluntary Networks Law and offered several recommendations to improve the right to freedom of association. As part of their analysis, the Confederation reviewed the historical evolution of the legislation overseeing CSOs, noting that consecutive legislative amendments from 1957 - 2006 have unduly restricted freedom of association in Sudan.
In particular, the 2006 law on Humanitarian and Voluntary Networks Law led to unprecedented burdens and obstacles for Sudanese civil society and granted authorities sweeping powers to interfere in the work of civic groups. When assessing the proposed 2017 amendments to the same law, the Confederation noted that:
"...it is important that the government sees that democracy, the economy, peace, security, basic rights and freedoms are not countervailing interests, and that enacting legislation designed to curb the freedom of civil society would only serve to undermine stability and sow the seeds of anger, radicalization and continued instability".
The Confederation made a number of recommendations on the proposed legislation regarding registration of CSOs, government oversight over the registration process, the process for renewing CSO' registration and cancellation of CSOs' operating licenses.