Sudan: Criminalization of human rights work threatens protection of freedoms

By Ahmed Elzobier, Sudan Researcher at Amnesty International

Three Sudanese human rights defenders were released from jail on 6 March after paying a fine of 50,000 Sudanese Pounds (about 7,700 US dollars) each.

Khalafalla Al-Afif Mukhtar, Midhat A. Hamdan and Mustafa Adam had been sentenced to one year in jail and a fine, but were released after nine months on time served after paying the exorbitant fines.  The crimes they were found guilty of? Two of them were convicted of dissemination of false information and one for espionage.

All three are members of TRACKS, a human rights organization that provides training on a range of themes including human rights and information technology to civil society in Sudan.

Over the last two years, TRACKS’ offices have been raided twice, on 26 March 2015 and 29 February 2016. On 22 May 2016, NISS officials detained several of its staff and members and charged them with a number of offences including crimes against the state.

In Sudan, it is common for the government to portray human rights defenders as “spies” or agents to foreign governments.  When arrested, they are usually charged with the offences of ‘undermining the constitutional system,’ ‘waging war against the state’ or ‘espionage,’ all of which carry the death penalty or life in prison.

This hostility towards human rights defenders is intended to silence those who speak out against human rights violations in the country. The government is, in this way, criminalizing human rights work.

This must end.

Although their release is great news, the chilling effect of the 10-month incarceration of the three TRACKS’ members on other human rights defenders must not be forgotten.

We should also remember that there are others like them still languishing in detention simply because of their human rights work.

Mudawi Ibrahim, a prominent human rights defender, has been in detention for more than three months since he was arbitrarily arrested by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) agents in December last year. They also arrested his driver Adam El-Sheikh, his accountant Nora Osman and his friend Hafiz Eldoma, an internally displaced person from Darfur, who had previously been arrested at Mudawi’s house in November.

Hafiz Eldoma has been subjected to torture, including through electrocution and beatings, and forced to confess. 

None of these human rights defenders have been told why they were arrested, and are being held without charge. 

The Sudanese government has also prevented human rights defenders from attending international fora. In 2016, the government’s attempts to prevent four civil society activists from attending the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Geneva were widely criticized, including by Amnesty International.

Reporting on human rights violations is not a crime. Over the last 18 years, the role of human rights defenders has been specifically recognized by the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, with a view to increasing their protection against violations and abuses from states and non-state actors, including through ’campaigns of intimidation and misinformation, fabricated criminal charges, forced disappearance, imprisonment, torture and murder.’ 

There is good reason for independent voices as governments generally tend to paint a deceptively rosy picture of the human rights situation in their countries.

We need independent human rights defenders to expose violations such as arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the NISS.They ensure human rights violations are not kept secret and victims do not suffer in silence.

Sudan has obligations under international law to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. In short, the government is obligated to stop human rights violations. And human rights defenders have the right to promote and strive for the protection and realization of human rights both nationally and internationally.

The government must see human rights defenders’ role as complementary to its own, rather than criminalize their activities. As a start, the Government of Sudan should immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders currently in detention simply for their human rights work, and drop all charges against them.