Sudan’s Desperate Crackdown on Human Rights Activists

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Driven by a growing fear of its own people and their demands for better governance, the Sudanese regime is intensifying its assault on humanitarian organizations and human rights activists, both at home and abroad.

Since mid-December, four local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been closed: Arry, the Sudanese Studies Center, Al-Khatim Adlan Center for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE), and the Cultural Forum for Literary Criticism. Moreover, the authorities appear to be preparing for additional closures. On December 24, the government-affiliated newspaper Akhir Lahza stated that officials would “launch a campaign” against organizations accused of using their cultural and humanitarian activities as cover for political goals. The same article claimed that these organizations were receiving funding from foreign powers seeking to undermine the Sudanese government. On December 25, President Omar al-Bashir issued a decree establishing a committee to regulate foreign NGOs in Sudan. Security forces will be heavily represented on the committee, with members from the Defense Ministry, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and the Interior Ministry, in addition to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Humanitarian Affairs Commission, and the Darfur Regional Authority.

Tensions between the government and the Sudanese people have been increasing since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings inspired protests in Sudan. The protesters chanted that Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan were as one in their fight against tyranny, and called for al-Bashir to step down. These early demonstrations were often led by students and were relatively small, with some including only 200 people.

However, worsening economic and security conditions led to larger protests with broader popular support during 2012. In particular, the public was affected by the rising prices of basic necessities, the independence of South Sudan and the related loss of oil revenue, the cutting of government subsidies, and the rising costs of the conflicts with rebels in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, and Darfur. External pressure, including U.S. sanctions, had also started to take its toll. In June 2012, a new series of demonstrations broke out over rising prices and the government’s austerity measures. Unlike the 2011 protests, these often drew thousands of participants. The police were ruthless in stamping out the demonstrations, using tear gas, batons, live ammunition, and mass arrests.


Protests held in Sudan in June 2012, in response to austerity measures from the government. (#SudanRevolts).
Photo Credit: Mosireen

The government is now facing mounting pressure from human rights activists who are learning from their North African counterparts how to mobilize the power of the street. The regime has reacted like other dictatorships under threat, doing everything in its ability to silence dissent through intimidation, violence, and arrests.

The recent closures of NGOs and efforts to reinforce state control reveal the government’s fear of groups that publish information locally and internationally about the human rights situation in Khartoum, Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan State, which includes the Nuba Mountains. The regime can ill-afford more international pressure, and runs the risk of having additional cases brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The government’s ruthlessness has continued even after the NGO shutdowns. It arrests, tortures, and withholds medical treatment from targeted activists. Others are abducted and held for months at a time in unknown locations. The government also intimidates activists’ families, specifically threatening to harm them if the activists share their information with media outlets and international organizations.

The regime is so concerned that knowledge of human rights violations will reach the international community that it tries to prevent activists from leaving Sudan. Even when they manage to flee to neighboring countries, Sudanese security officers continue to intimidate them. To track the activists, officers use traditional techniques such as forcing people to state their destinations when they leave the country, maintaining contacts within Sudanese communities in countries of refuge, and forcing people to register at the Sudanese embassy. In addition, the authorities’ ability to harness technology is growing, particularly the means to hack into online accounts and mobile telephones.


Riot police in Egypt.
Photo Credit | Al Jazeera English

Activists who have fled to Egypt, for instance, report that NISS officers are able to find their phone number and location within a week of their arrival. The NISS then threatens to harm or kill them and their family members if they reveal any information about human rights violations in Sudan. The NISS is not afraid to take action in Egypt. Activists who have fled there report that their houses are being broken into, their laptops and phones are taken, and unmarked cars have tried to run them over. One activist reported that she pulled her daughters out of school and left her job to stay home with them after Sudanese officers threatened to rape them.

Making matters worse, Egyptian activists and Sudanese activists in Egypt say that the Egyptian authorities are cooperating with NISS officers, and that the NISS manipulates Egyptians’ fear of foreigners and racism against Sudanese to further harass activists. In one case, an activist was raped by three Egyptian men, and soon afterward received a phone call from a suspected NISS officer saying that this proved she could be found anywhere.

The Sudanese government’s vicious crackdown illustrates both the weakness of its control over an increasingly frustrated public and the genuine power of civil society organizations. Human rights activists’ strength lies in their resilience, solidarity, knowledge of state abuses, and nonviolent methods. The government cannot justify its contemptible attacks on such activists, no matter how many allegations it fabricates. The crackdown only serves to further tarnish its image and reputation. The international community must support the human rights community in Sudan, and press the government to end the futile oppression of its own citizens.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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