Women on front line of peaceful protests bear the brunt of violent crackdown amid state of emergency

Peaceful Assembly 

The Sudanese government stepped up its violent crackdown to suppress peaceful anti-government protests that have been ongoing in Khartoum and Sudan’s provinces almost every day for the past three months, since December 2018. Security forces continued to use excessive force and at times lethal force to disperse and prevent peaceful protests – using live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, and attacking hospitals treating injured protesters. At least 45 people have been confirmed killed and 180 injured in the ongoing protests, according to Amnesty International, but the figure is supposedly higher.

Additionally, security forces raided a number of universities using tear gas to disperse students holding peaceful protests, resulting in injuries, and arrests of students. On 7th March 2019, security forces used tear gas to disperse a protest of hundreds of students at the National University campus in Khartoum.

Security forces have launched a violent campaign targeting protesters, including doctors, teachers, journalists, women activists and opposition political leaders. Hundreds have been arbitrary arrested and detained, with reports of torture and severe beating, including sexual abuse mostly against women, intimidation and abuse. More than 2,600 people have been arrested and detained during the protests according to government figures.

A state of emergency, imposed by President Omar al-Bashir in February 2019, has been used as a justification to violent suppress citizens exercising their legitimate rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, hereby committing serious human rights violations.

State of emergency measures - new tools for state repression with impunity against peaceful protesters

In response to the nationwide persistent protests, on 22nd February 2019, President Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency that has given sweeping powers to the armed forces. President Bashir also dissolved the federal and local governments and appointed a former Defence Minister Awad Ibnouf as a vice president, and replaced all state governors with military officials. The state of emergency was approved by the Parliament but reduced to six months on 11th March 2019. Legal experts assert that the state of emergency violates the Constitution.

Under the state of emergency, the following measures were inter alia imposed through emergency orders:

  • Armed forces were given sweeping powers to raid buildings, to search people and arrest anyone suspected of "involvement in an emergency-related crime".
  • Prohibition of unlicensed gatherings, assemblies and processions; as well as the blocking of roads and the halting of traffic.
  • Prohibition of the "preparation, publishing or circulation of news that harms the state or citizens or calls for undermining the existing constitutional order".
  • Emergency court and a special prosecutor were set up to investigate violations of the measures, with offenders facing up to 10 years in prison.

These measures have been strongly criticised to be tools of suppression of dissent and serving as a clear licence for the state to continue committing human rights violations with impunity. 

Women protesters on the front line bear the brunt of violent state repression

Women have played a prominent role at the protests, calling for freedom, change and claiming space to assert their rights defying serious threats, violence. They are resisting an increasingly hostile patriarchal environment, institutionalised gender discrimination and harassment by authorities that women human rights defenders have been increasingly subjected under the current regime.

In response, security forces – have targeted women human rights defenders (WHRD) using different repressive tactics including arbitrary arrests, detention without access to family and lawyers, intimidation and physical abuse, or the use of family members to pressure the activists to reveal information. Activists released from detention have testified to the abuse, various forms of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, including threats of rape and sexual harassment, as well as being beaten in detention by a "special female unit" that seemed specially designated to abuse detained women activists, including subjecting women to body cavity search that can amount to sexual violence.

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) found that 30 women activists were held in Omdurman women’s prison in inhumane conditions, stating:

“The detainees were targeted for their participation or suspected involvement in the ongoing protests calling for the resignation of president Omar al-Bashir. ACJPS and FIDH have gathered disturbing information about the detention conditions of these women, all of whom have been subjected to invasive strip searches, amounting to acts of sexual violence.”

Since the start of the demonstrations, at least 100 WHRDs, including journalists, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, according to the Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa (WHRD-MENA).

CIVICUS and its regional partner the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) joined 32 other civil society groups in a solidarity statement issued by the WHRD-MENA calling on the Sudanese authorities to end all of forms of persecution against women human rights defenders; to take effective measures to end the legitimization of violence against WHRD’s; and establish mechanisms to protect WHRDs in Sudan.

Despite President Bashir's order to release all women detained in the protests to mark International Women's Day on 8th March, arbitrary arrests and detention of women continued. 

  • On 9th March, the emergency court in Khartoum sentenced nine women to a month's imprisonment and 20 lashes each for participating in a "banned demonstration". The flogging was subsequently waved reportedly due to pressure from the women's families rallying outside the courthouse.

WHRDs are particularly vulnerable due to the absence of complaints mechanisms for women and the impact of legal restrictions on WHRD’s capacity to access legal, psychological and medical assistance. WHRDs have been previously subjected to repression by authorities under the Public Order Law provisions that criminalise “indecent” clothing, such as wearing trousers, with punishments including flogging.

Sudanese authorities also suppressed peaceful women protests:

  • On 10th February, in Omdurman, the security forces used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters, mostly young women, demonstrating against the detention of women arrested at previous protests; and arrested some of the protesting women.
  • On 25th February, security officers invaded the Ahfad University for Women in Omdurman dispersing female students with teargas and beating students as they protested in solidarity with students of the University of Medical Sciences and Technology (UMST) in Khartoum, where the security forces conducted a raid the previous day.
  • To honour women participation in the protest, thousands of women mobilised on 7th March in Khartoum; police used tear gas to suppress the demonstrations. 

Abductions, arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and summary trials of peaceful protesters

Security forces - uniformed forces cooperating with armed masked agents - have arbitrary arrested and abducted protesters, including activists and human rights defenders, from the streets and their homes and released victims consistently showed signs of torture. In some instances, the torture has resulting in death in custody. Many remain in incommunicado detention without access to lawyers and family.

A recent forensic investigation conducted by BBC, based on dozens videos and witness reports, revealed a targeted campaign of abduction, enforced disappearance and torture of dissidents carried out by "secret hit squads" which consist of groups of masked armed men - some in military uniforms and others in plainclothes. Video footage released by BBC shows these "hit squads" operating in groups, driving in vehicles without number plates to disguise identity chasing protesters on the streets, beating them, and taking them to secret detention centres in Khartoum where victims reported extreme acts of torture including beating, breaking of limbs and exposure to extreme cold.

  • A similar modus operandi was allegedly used to abduct Yasser Ali from his home . The activist suffered serious injuries, reportedly perpetrated by a sniper during the protests on 25th December 2018; subsequently he was taken by masked men saying they were following an order.
  • On 1st February 2019, teacher Ahmed al-Kheir, died in the National Intelligence and Security Service's (NISS) detention after being subjected to torture, including rape, according to testimonies of an eyewitness detained and allegedly tortured together with Al-Kher. The previous day, on 31st January, NISS arrested Al-Kher along with several others attending anti-government protests in eastern Sudan’s Kassala state. The prosecution office launched an investigation into the case, however as security forces enjoy immunity under the emergency laws, lawyers are sceptical that those responsible will be brought to justice.

Following an order by the Director of National Intelligence and Security Service to release all detained protesters on 29th January 2019, only 186 were released and security agencies continued to arrest protesters and activists.

The Democratic Alliance of Lawyers reported that Sudanese authorities have tried over 870 people in emergency courts in Khartoum, Omdurman, and Khartoum North, on charges of participating in demonstrations in summary trials according to Human Rights Watch .

Association

During the crackdown of peaceful protests, in addition to journalists and civil activists, authorities also targeted opposition political groups and members of professional groups actively involved in the protests or providing services such as lawyers and doctors .

  • On 31st January 2019, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) arrested a group of several dozens of lawyers as they were attending a meeting to form a committee to defend the detained protesters and provide them with legal aid, according to the Sudanese Lawyers and Legal Practitioners’ Association in the UK.
  • According to the CSO Physicians for Human Rights, 27 doctors remain "unlawfully" imprisoned (as of 4th February 2019) for attending protests or treating injured protesters; seven hospitals have been directly attacked by the security forces as the "security forces have raided facilities, shot bullets and tear gas into them, and detained doctors, leaving patients suffocating from tear gas, terrified to seek medical care, and without enough health workers to attend to them."
  • On 21st February 2019, security forces arrested around two dozen opposition members, including the general-secretary of the Communist Party, and three leading members of the National Umma Party. In March 2019, 13 members of the opposition National Umma Party, including the co-president, Dr Maryam El Sadig, were detained and handed prison sentences and fines by the Omdurman emergency court, for demonstrating in front of Umma's headquarters in Omdurman. 

Expression 

Authorities have used measures to systematically silence media outlets, journalists and civil society as the authorities launched a campaign against “agitators”, that include journalists covering the uprising. In the first month of the protests, more than 100 press freedom violations were registered by media watchdogs (as of 22 January 2019). The security forces arrested at least 79 journalists and there have been 63 bans and seizures of newspapers by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), as reported by Reporters without Borders. Journalists have also been sentenced under the state's emergency measures.

  • In February 2019, British Channel4News journalist reporting on the Sudan protests, Yousra Elbagir said she was forced to flee the country after threatened by the security forces with the criminal charge of “inciting hatred against the state”, in relation to her reporting on violations against protesters.
  • In January 2019, Sudan’s State Security Prosecution has issued arrest warrants against 38 journalists and online activists on charges of “incitement”, “spreading false news”, and "disturbing public peace" under the Criminal Code and article 17 of the Cybercrime Act.

Despite President Bashir's pledge to release detained journalists in early February, security forces continued to arrest journalists, including subjecting them to incommunicado detention:

  • Osman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of the independent Al-Tayar newspaper, was arrested at the newspaper's office in Khartoum on 22nd February by the National Intelligence and Security Service and has been held in an undisclosed location since without official charges brought against him, said CPJ on 8th March.

Activists used different ways to resist restrictions and claim space to voice the grievances of the protests, such as using art. A young female artist has been posting drawings on social media depicting the role of women in the protests, stating the purpose is "to remember that in recent protests women’s voices have been loud and powerful".