New Internationalist

Sudan’s commitment to freedom is a joke

Protest to free Mohamed Salah [Related Image]
© Nahla Mahmoud

Anyone following the political situation in Sudan can struggle to keep up with the pace and analyse what’s going on: different things are happening, at varying intensities, around the country. Over the past few months, we have heard news about the UNAMID scandal in Darfur; the arrest of Elsadig Elmahdi, head of the Umma Party; the existence of comrade Hametti and his Rapid Support Forces; and the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who is awaiting a death penalty in prison for being a Christian.

While all this is happening on the one hand, on the other remains the question of the human rights and freedoms long since claimed, falsely promised and never granted by the Sudanese government. A few months ago, the same government extended to the political opposition an open invitation to a national dialogue in order to create an inclusive political future. Some parties agreed to participate while others refused until certain conditions, including the lifting of restrictions on freedoms, are met. This of course has not happened; instead, new abuse cases continue to pile up.  

One such is the case of Sudanese Christian Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, who was charged with apostasy and adultery and is in prison, with her toddler Martin and new-born Maya, awaiting her flogging and death penalty. The fact that anyone could be criminalized – let alone punished in such a barbaric way – for publicly expressing their beiefs in the 21st century is a disgrace, and a slap in the face to a humanity that has fought tooth and nail to secure these rights. As for Sudan, it is well documented that, since the 1983 introduction of the so-called September Laws under President Nimeiry, the Islamists have abused and violated civil rights and freedoms in every possible way. The case of mystic and reformer Mahmoud M Taha, who in 1985 was hanged for his Islamic progress views, remains vivid. The 129 people from Hay Mayo, south Khartoum, who were charged with apostasy in 2011, is just one more reported incident among many others, including the campaign led by a number of human rights organizations in support of the ‘adultery’ cases of Intisar Sharif and Layla Ibrahim in 2012. Both were freed following national and international pressure. Articles 126, 146 and 152, which criminalize apostasy, adultery and police public behaviour respectively, are among the most used to terrorize and silence people within the Sudanese criminal code.

Meriam’s case has gathered momentum and received international support. Many countries have condemned the sentence and called on the Sudanese government to free her. Petitions issued by Amnesty International and Change.org have been signed by more than 800,000 supporters. Yet it is no surprise that the Sudanese government responded to press queries with the same contradictory idiocy. Its Minister for Foreign Affairs, Abdullah al-Azraq claimed that Sudan was commited to freedom of religion and announced that Meriam was to be freed; a day later he contradicted himself. He thus joins the list of silly spokespersons we have had over the few last years: Ahmed Balal Osman, Minister of the Interior; Rabee Abdel Ati, Consultant for the Ministry of Information; Jawdat Allah Osman, General Director of Khartoum Water Affairs; and of course, President Omar al-Bashir.

Another important issue to be addressed here is that of the political detainees. Ironically, at the same time that the government is proposing ‘freedoms’ to draw the opposition into the dialogue, it is detaining those who peacefully oppose it. Three activists, Mohamed Salah, Tag Elsir Jafar and Muamar Musa, were kidnapped last month outside the University of Khartoum and have been in prison ever since, with no trial or charges brought against them, and without being allowed family visits. There are serious fears that they might be ill-treated and living under inhumane conditions in prison. Amnesty has issued an urgent action to release them. At the same time, the courts in Khartoum are setting free the murderers of shot protesters.   

Restrictions on the press and on free expression – not new to the government – continue, but with added brutality. Every few days, we hear about a suspended newspaper or an arrested journalist. Last week a number of journalists were arrested by the government’s national intelligence regarding stories on corruption within government institutions. The same week, a demonstration by several Sudanese journalists was organized in front of the Council for Press and Publications’ headquarters in Khartoum, to protest against the restrictions on the press and the arrest of their colleagues.

The conclusion is clear: the government was never serious about negotiating the country’s present situation or future path, and it never will be until it is forced to bring a new agenda to the table. Bombing of citizens need to stop; Sharia and other constraining laws must be abolished; and justice has to be served for those who have suffered and been abused. Clearing up the social, cultural and economic mess the laws have fostered could be part of any future discussions or national dialogues. A dialogue where, outside, Maya is playing with her mother, Mohamed Salah is safe with his family, and everyone else is reading news about the politicians’ first meeting, and the money spent there on Barakwi dates, popcorns and fizzy drinks: since these seem to be the only things put on the table so far.

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