Sudan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Having effectively marginalized Islamic ideologue and former regime strongman Hassan al-Turabi, President Omar al-Bashir further consolidated his power during 2001 and continued to emerge from diplomatic isolation. On the latter front, Al Bashir took the opportunity following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States to pledge cooperation in combating terrorism, and therefore to lay the foundation for improved relations with Washington. U.S.-Sudanese relations did improve somewhat during the year despite a lack of concrete evidence that Sudan has stopped harboring terrorists or their supporters.

The Sudanese civil war moved into its nineteenth year with no end in sight despite African- and Arab-sponsored peace initiatives. Such initiatives have taken on greater urgency since the 1999 inauguration of a Sudanese oil pipeline, which now finances Khartoum's war efforts. The government has intensified fighting around oil fields in an apparently new policy aimed at driving out or exterminating inhabitants who might pose a threat to its control of the fields.

Africa's largest country has been embroiled in civil wars for 35 of its 45 years as an independent state. It achieved independence in 1956 after nearly 80 years of British rule. The Anyanya movement, representing mainly Christian and animist black Africans in southern Sudan, battled Arab Muslim government forces from 1956 to 1972. The south gained extensive autonomy under a 1972 accord, and for the next decade, an uneasy peace prevailed. In 1983, General Jafar Numeiri, who had toppled an elected government in 1969, restricted southern autonomy and imposed Sharia (Islamic law). Opposition led again to civil war, and Numeiri was overthrown in 1985. Civilian rule was restored in 1986 with an election that resulted in a government led by Sadiq al- Mahdi of the moderate Islamic Ummah Party, but war continued. Lieutenant General Omar al-Bashir ousted al-Mahdi in a 1989 coup, and the latter spent seven years in prison or under house arrest before fleeing to Eritrea. Until 1999, al-Bashir ruled through a military-civilian regime backed by senior Muslim clerics including al-Turabi, who wielded considerable power as the ruling National Congress (NC) party leader and speaker of the 400-member national assembly.

Tensions between al-Bashir and al-Turabi came to a head in December 1999. On the eve of a parliamentary vote on a plan by al-Turabi to curb the president's power, al-Bashir dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency. He introduced a law allowing the formation of political parties, fired al-Turabi as NC head, replaced the cabinet with his own supporters, and held deeply flawed presidential and parliamentary elections, which the NC won overwhelmingly, in December 2000. Al-Turabi formed his own party, the Popular National Congress (PNC), in June 2000, but was prohibited from participating in politics. In January 2001, the Ummah Party refused to join al- Bashir's new government despite the president's invitation, declaring that it refused to support totalitarianism. Al-Bashir renewed the state of emergency for another 12 months in January.

Al-Turabi and some 20 of his supporters were arrested in February 2001 after he called for a national uprising against the government and signed a memorandum of understanding in Geneva with the southern-based rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Al-Turabi and four aides were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government, and al-Turabi was placed under house arrest in May. He was released in October and the charges were dropped. No explanation was given, but al-Bashir promised to open up politics and promote democracy.

The current civil war broadly pits northern Arab Muslims against southern-based black African animists and Christians. Some pro-democracy northerners, however, have allied themselves with the SPLA-led southern rebels to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while northern rebels of the Sudan Allied Forces have staged attacks in northeastern Sudan. Some southern groups have signed peace pacts with the government, and there is fighting among rival southern militias. A convoluted mix of historical, religious, ethnic, and cultural tensions makes peace elusive, while competition for economic resources fuels the conflict.

The government continued to bomb civilian as well as military targets, and to arm tribal militias as proxy fighting forces. International humanitarian relief efforts are hampered by ceasefire violations and are sometimes deliberately targeted by parties to the conflict. A Danish pilot was killed in May when the Red Cross plane he was flying came under fire over southern Sudan. It was unclear who was responsible. In March, pro-government militia abducted four aid workers but released them a week later. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported intensified fighting and increasing numbers of displaced persons in oil-rich areas, and assert that oil interests are fueling an ethnic cleansing campaign that has uprooted more than 36,000 people.

A joint Libyan-Egyptian peace initiative calls for democracy within a unified state based on recognition of Sudan's ethnic and religious diversity. All major parties to the conflict have nominally approved the initiative, though many have expressed reservations, particularly about the lack of a provision for southern self-determination. Peace talks under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have focused on southern self-determination, borders, and the application of Sharia in the south. However, prospects for a settlement, or even for serious multilateral negotiations, appear dim; it seems unlikely that the government will halt the war until it has complete control of southern oil fields.

Al-Bashir has begun to lift Sudan out of its international isolation by sidelining al- Turabi, who is seen as the force behind Sudan's efforts to export Islamic extremism. Although new vice president Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who replaced al-Turabi as Islamic ideologue, maintains a firm commitment to Sudan as an Islamic state and its jihad against non-Muslims, al-Bashir has managed to repair relations with several nations, including Iran, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, al-Bashir condemned terrorism, issued a statement rejecting violence, and offered to cooperate in combating terrorism. The U.S. State Department reported that Sudanese officials had arrested about 30 associates of Saudi-born terrorist-in-exile Osama bin Laden, who resided in Sudan for five years in the 1990s. Though the report was unconfirmed by Khartoum, the United States abstained from a late-September UN Security Council vote, clearing the way for the UN to lift sanctions on Sudan, imposed in 1996 after suspects in an assassination attempt against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fled to Sudan. However, the United States renewed its own sanctions for a year in November, citing human rights abuses and Sudan's reputation for terrorism.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Sudanese cannot change their government democratically. December 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections cannot credibly be said to have reflected the will of the people. The major opposition parties, which are believed to have the support of most Sudanese, boycotted in protest of what they called an attempt by a totalitarian regime to impart the appearance of fairness. The European Union declined an invitation to monitor the polls to avoid bestowing legitimacy on the outcome. Omar al-Bashir, running against former president Jafar Numeiri and three relative unknowns, won 86 percent of the vote. NC candidates stood uncontested for nearly a third of parliamentary seats, and more than 100 seats are reserved for presidential appointees. Voting did not take place in some 17 rebel-held constituencies, and government claims of 66 percent voter turnout in some states were denounced as fictitious.

Serious human rights abuses by nearly every faction involved in the civil war have been reported. Secret police operate "ghost houses," or detention and torture centers, in several cities. Government armed forces routinely raid villages, burn homes, kill men, and abduct women and children to be used as slaves in the north. Relief agencies have liberated thousands of slaves by purchasing them from captors in the north and returning them to the south. The government continued to bomb civilian installations and relief sites. International aid workers have been abducted and killed.

Although there has been no organized effort to compile casualty statistics in southern Sudan since 1994, the total number of people killed by war, famine, and disease is believed to exceed two million. Distribution of food and medical relief is hampered by fighting and by the government's deliberate blockage of aid shipments. The World Health Organization reported a case of polio in southern Sudan in July and expressed concern that many more people might be infected. In November, the government called a four-week ceasefire to allow for vaccinations and aid drops. More than four million people are internally displaced, and that number is growing as the government fights to clear black Africans from oil fields or potential oil drilling sites. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan reported in July 2001 that the human rights situation in the country was worse than one year ago and was concerned that oil is fueling the government's war against civilians.

Soldiers continue to carry out a policy of "depopulating" the Nuba Mountains, a 30,000-square-mile area in the heart of Sudan. The black Africans native to the Nuba region numbered more than one million in 1985, and have been reduced to some 300,000 today. The government frequently bombs the region and enforces a blockade that prevents food, fuel, clothing, and medicine from entering.

The judiciary is not independent. The chief justice of the supreme court, who presides over the entire judiciary, is government appointed. Regular courts provide some due process safeguards, but special security and military courts, used to punish political opponents of the government, do not. Criminal law is based on Sharia and provides for flogging, amputation, crucifixion, and execution. Ten southern, predominantly non- Muslim, states are officially exempt from Sharia, although criminal law allows for its application in the future if the state assemblies choose to implement it. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture are widespread, and security forces act with impunity. Prison conditions do not meet international standards.

Six NDA leaders arrested in December 2000 went on trial in March 2001 for plotting an uprising with a U.S. diplomat. The diplomat was expelled shortly after meeting with the defendants. President al-Bashir announced in October that the case would be dropped, but gave no explanation. In November, Ahmed al-Mirghani, a leading opposition figure, returned to Sudan from 12 years of exile in Egypt. Al-Bashir welcomed the former head of the State Council, which represented political parties before al-Bashir's coup, in a move aimed at demonstrating the government's commitment to reconciliation.

Press freedom has improved since the government eased restrictions in 1997, but journalists practice self-censorship to avoid harassment, arrest, and the closure of their publications. There are reportedly nine daily newspapers and a wide variety of Arabic-and English-language publications. All of these are subject to censorship. Penalties apply to journalists who allegedly harm the nation or economy or who violate national security. A 1999 law imposes penalties for "professional errors." The editor of a leftist paper was jailed in January 2001 after an article alleging financial mismanagement by courts. Two journalists were jailed in February for failing to pay fines incurred for libeling the local government in Khartoum. In February, al-Turabi's PNC began printing the first opposition paper to appear in Sudan for more than a decade, but the paper was banned later that month. A BBC correspondent was arrested in April when he went to cover an Easter event in Khartoum. He was released without charge after a week. The Englishlanguage Khartoum Monitor was suspended temporarily in September because of "inflammatory" articles. Twenty-two journalists from al Watan were arrested in November when they protested an official ban on a corruption story. The president controls the National Press and Publications Council, which may impose suspensions, bans, or fines at will.

Emergency law severely restricts freedom of assembly and association. Riot police used tear gas and batons to break up a demonstration in Khartoum by thousands of students protesting an increase in bus fares. PNC members have been arrested and detained at random during the year, including Hassan al-Turabi, who spent eight months of 2001 detained for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Islam is the state religion, and the constitution claims Sharia as the source of its legislation. At least 75 percent of Sudanese are Muslim, though most southern Sudanese adhere to traditional indigenous beliefs or Christianity. The overwhelming majority of those displaced or killed by war and famine in Sudan have been non-Muslims, and many starve because of a policy under which food is withheld pending conversion to Islam. Officials have described their campaign against non-Muslims as a holy war. Under the 1994 Societies Registration Act, religious groups must register in order to gather legally. Registration is reportedly difficult to obtain. The government denies permission to build churches and destroys Christian schools, centers, and churches. Catholic priests face random detention and interrogation by police. Fifty-three Christians protesting a government order to change the venue of an Easter ceremony were flogged in April, and 47 of them were sentenced to 20-day jail terms. Amnesty International reported that many people were injured when police fired bullets at the protesters.

Women face discrimination in family matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, which are governed by Sharia. Public-order police frequently harass women and monitor their dress for adherence to government standards of modesty. Human Rights Watch reported in July 2001 that three young women were beaten and verbally abused by police in such a case. Female genital mutilation occurs despite legal prohibition, and rape is reportedly routine in war zones. President al-Bashir announced in January 2001 that Sudan would not ratify the international Convention on Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women because it "contradicted Sudanese values and traditions." Children are used as soldiers by government and opposition forces in the civil war. The SPLA, which reportedly employs some 13,000 children, promised to demobilize at least 10,000 by the end of 2002.

There are no independent trade unions. The Sudan Workers Trade Unions Federation is the main labor organization, with about 800,000 members. Local union elections are rigged to ensure the election of government-approved candidates. A lack of labor legislation limits the freedom of workers to organize or bargain collectively.