Civil Society Shines A Light on Embattled Civic Space

Peaceful Assembly & Association

On 9th September 2018 Sudan announced a new prime minister. Faced with rising inflation, fuel and food prices, President Omar al-Bashir appointed Motazz Moussa to solve the country's deepening economic crisis. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, violent protests over economic concerns have been rife. Yet, there is no sign that Moussa will ease restrictions on civil society.

A recent letter to the Human Rights Council illustrates the severity of the situation. On 4th September 2018, 31 CSOs endorsed the text which decries the state of human rights in Sudan. In particular, the CSOs drew attention to the excessive use of force against protesters and challenges faced by civil society. The statement noted: 

"Our organisations are concerned about the suppression of peaceful protests by government security forces with unlawful use of excessive force, attacks on the media and impermissible restrictions on access to information, targeting of various civil society actors including human rights defenders, activists, journalists, bloggers and other dissenting voices with threats, intimidation, harassment, arbitrary detention and trumped-up criminal prosecutions, other restrictions on independent civil society..."

Ahead of the 39th session of the Human Rights Council, groups have also documented the harassment of activists. In August 2018, two members of the Darfur Bar Association (DBA) were detained upon their return to Sudan. The two activists were briefly detained and had their passports confiscated after receiving an award from the American Bar Association. This is not the first time Sudanese authorities have harassed activists from DBA. On 8th March 2018, the President of the DBA, Mohamed Aldouma was barred from travelling to Egypt to undergo medical treatment. CSOs have noted that this pattern of travel restrictions coerces activists from using international spaces to highlight human rights abuses in Sudan.

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) continue to face systematic violations. In August 2018, The Women's Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa (WHRD-MENA), drew attention to the harassment of WHRD Wini Omer. On 20th February 2018, Sudanese authorities burst into a meeting organised by Omer without a warrant and detained her for five days. The activist stands accused of running a brothel and drinking alcohol, a banned substance in Sudan for Muslims. Many civil society groups have drawn attention to the flimsy allegations brought against Omer. As a prominent WHRD, in 2017 she was awarded Mandela Washington fellowship for her work on human rights and women's issues in Sudan. At the first hearing of her case on 26th July 2018, the WHRD was told she could face further charges, including espionage against the state. If convicted, Omer could face the death penalty. WHRD-MENA reiterated calls for Sudanese authorities to drop all charges. 

This is not the first time Omer has been targeted. In December 2017, the WHRD was arrested and accused of wearing "indecent clothes." A judge later dropped the charges concluding her long skirt, scarf, and blouse were not indecent. Her repeated harassment has shed light on the threats facing WHRDs in Sudan. In 2016, more than 15,000 women were sentenced to flogging as a result of prosecutions brought under the public order law, or article 152 of Sudan's Criminal Code. The provision is often arbitrarily used to target WHRDs. WHRD-MENA commented on the law by saying: 

"The public order law explicitly discriminates against women, as most of its provisions are related to women’s agency: such as ‘indecency’, ‘scandalous outfits’, “women’s places’, women’s behaviour, and so on."

Omer's case continues. 

Expression

Freedom of expression in Sudan remains under pressure from state apparatus. As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, the systematic confiscation of journals, magazines and newspapers coupled with restrictions on journalists leaves little space for independent journalism. More than ten papers were confiscated in August 2018. 

Throughout the month, Sudanese authorities seized Al-Jarida, Al-Ray Al-Aam and Al-Shaiha Newspapers after printing. The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) regularly confiscate papers after publication to financially enfeeble and coerce critical outlets. In addition to this, on 31st August 2018, the NISS also banned a TV show. The Al-Midan Al-Sharqi talk show on Omdurman TV was unexpectedly cancelled after its host, Abdel-Bagi al-Zafir was informed that the show had been banned under NISS directives. No further explanation was given.  

More recently, on 8th September 2018, the NISS summoned a female journalist for interrogation. Lina Yacoub, the Chief-Editor of Baj News website was questioned for twelve hours before being released. Reports note that Baj News has gained prominence for covering issues of corruption in Sudan. It is also alleged that the NISS pressured Yacoub into revealing the sources of Baj News' information. 

The situation for journalists in Sudan has prompted a fightback from civil society. On 26th July 2018, three CSOs: Alkarama, the Arab Media Crisis Network and the Arab Coalition for Sudan called for UN Special Rapporteurs to condemn the poor respect for free expression in Sudan. Drawing attention to the treatment of another journalist, Ahmed Abakar, the three CSOs called upon the UN to denounce Sudanese authorities' aggressive stance toward critical journalists. Ahmed Abakar, has been harassed, threatened and banned from working by the NISS after writing political commentary on the situation in Sudan. He was summoned for interrogation on 5th May and 7th June 2018 and had his press card revoked on the 14th June 2018. He has been repeatedly threatened as a result of his journalistic work.