Nahla Mahmoud is an environmental campaigner and human right activist
originally from Sudan. She is particularly interested in issues of
secularism, equality and modern concepts of conserving natural
resources.

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Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human right activist originally from Sudan.

Sudan’s commitment to freedom is a joke

Protest to free Mohamed Salah

© 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.

Violence against protesters in Sudan leaves hundreds dead

Sudanese market stall holders

Sudanese market stallholders have been hit as the rise in fuel costs increases the price of food. Sebastian Baryli under a Creative Commons Licence

Following the Sudanese government’s decision last year to cut subsidies and raise fuel costs, protesters took to the streets in various cities across the country.

The strength of these demonstrations subsided during the months that followed, but renewed austerity measures and the lifting of fuel subsidies last month have pushed people back onto the streets in even larger numbers, across a variety of community sectors, for many more reasons.

Since 23 September, Sudan has become a scene of violence against peaceful protesters demanding change and basic rights. The government and police have responded with tear gas and live bullets and, according to Amnesty International, have in the last two weeks killed more than 200 people and arrested over 1,000.

Considering the government’s long history of abusing and killing its citizens – in the terrifying South Sudan war, in Kgabar, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, Niyala and Abyay, not to mention the ongoing genocide throughout the western region – this behaviour is nothing new. The joke, though, is how governmental representatives have responded to media enquiries about the situation: with contradictory, nonsensical stories.

Rabee Abdel Ati, a consultant for the Ministry of Information and government spokesperson, has been at the helm of this silly speech game. During an interview with the Arabia channel about the situation in Sudan, he told off the presenter for interrupting him and then accused her and her guest of being like ‘an elephant in labour of a rat’ (whatever that may mean).

Then came Ahmed Balal Osman, Minister of the Interior, who, in a press conference, forgot his manners while replying to a journalist’s question about demonstrators who had been shot, telling him that he needed a bit of ‘school discipline’. All of this is not surprising, considering that the big boss, Omar al-Bashir, is leading the show with a speech where he announced that there are no crises as the government has introduced hot dogs and pizza to the nation. This pizza and hot dog speech was used to justify the current economic crisis and future government strategies at a press conference last month.

Compared with past demonstrations, however, it’s quite promising to see how the current movement has triggered a strong reaction, not only among the middle class, social media activists and university students, but also at the grassroots level: across neighbourhoods, markets and public areas. Citizens of various age groups and professions have joined together in calling for the toppling of the government and demanding justice for their loved ones who have been shot dead by government forces.

These protests are also helping on an institutional level, reactivating and linking professional unions that have been paralyzed since the current regime took power in 1989. Lawyers, doctors, teachers and journalists have all signed a statement supporting the demonstrations and condemning the violence used by the government against peaceful protest.

Diaspora communities have shown support, holding fundraising events in many countries, primarily in Europe. London alone hosted three large events in the last few weeks.

While looking at the current situation in Sudan with cautious optimism, I do wonder what might happen if reform takes longer than expected or hoped. The continued violence against protesters and citizens might lead groups to take up weapons in self-defence or join groups already armed. As a result, civil war could be a possible scenario, washing away dreams of peace any time soon.

I am also thinking about possible challenges after the political battle against the ruling National Congress Party is won. It is worrying to observe some protesters trying to impose their personal beliefs on others – telling women what to wear, expressing anger through derogatory, homophobic and sexist remarks, and adopting a hardline Islamized attitude and speech in media and on the streets. Strong personal judgments still influence how the Sudanese community treats ‘others’, especially vulnerable groups and minority sectors, including LGBTI people, women and non-Muslims.

Much work is needed in terms of challenging social and cultural discriminatory norms long taken for granted. This will pave the way for real civil values to emerge. Political and economic changes are, without a doubt, the major priorities in Sudan right now, but they should be coupled with a parallel social and cultural shift, or an ‘enlightenment’ campaign – as I like to call it – to help create the civil society we all hope for.

The Sudanese diaspora must up its game

Sudan demonstration in London, 2012

Sudan demonstration in London, 2012 muffinn under a Creative Commons Licence

Just over a year ago, on 30 June 2012, the Sudanese diaspora turned out in force to call for the toppling of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship regime. The protests echoed those back in Sudan. The vibe that day and during the whole month was intense, with communities throughout the diaspora protesting simultaneously across the world. We thought: it’s finally going to happen; we are going to come together as one nation demanding the same aim! A year on, and here we are again, witnessing another anniversary (the 24th) of the same government. No surprise, really, considering that the same angry people were using the same mechanisms to demonstrate last year as they did 30 and 50 years ago.

I am 26 and have lived most of my life under this dictatorship government. When I lived in Sudan, I had no opportunity to live, think, develop or even dream freely. I am angry too, but I am not interested in celebrating past revolutions or old victories. I am done expecting any good out of the old-fashioned traditional opposition. We live in the 21st century; can’t we just move on?

I came to Britain three years ago, and have noticed that we members of the Sudanese diaspora are acting and interacting as another mini-Sudan in Britain, rather than as a concerned arm of its society. This is reflected in the way we organize our activities, plan our work and communicate with the wider society. How can we better engage with the wider community and more efficiently contribute toward the ongoing debate on Sudan’s future?

We tend to be ‘reactionists’ who respond to external triggers rather than following clear, specific long- or short-term strategies. This is, of course, a key element in building cases, mobilizing people and influencing change. During last June’s demonstration in front of 10 Downing Street, the organizers had two general aims: to put pressure on the British government to raise Sudan’s profile through a memorandum handed to the prime minister; and to gain British and international media attention. But no specific measurable or achievable objectives were communicated to the public. The only action called for was the overthrow of the Sudanese government, which wasn’t realistic or feasible from within Britain.

Our public work is usually driven by personal motives and fuelled by anger and enthusiasm rather than evidence-based analysis. Last year’s demonstration should have been assessed in terms of media coverage, the response of the British government and human rights sector, and the influence on the situation back in Sudan. Accordingly, the organisers could decide if a similar demonstration this year is a good idea or, alternatively, if they need to explore other more efficient tools.

Additionally, professionalism seems to be missing from most of our work. Excluding a few organizing groups from the Sudanese community, it has become very rare to receive an event invitation with reasonable notice or attend one which starts on time. The blurring of boundaries between personal and professional life has transformed many promising organizations within the community into scenes of personal conflict.

Despite the amount of time many Sudanese have spent in Britain, most of those whom I have met do not feel settled. There is always the feeling that they will return to Sudan once the regime is overthrown. Not only is this emotionally draining; it doesn’t help the situation here or in Sudan.

On the other hand, there are many great opportunities to explore and from which our campaign could benefit:

First, online media and digital platforms, which offer the opportunity to write and speak out (both in English and Arabic) as individuals. Specific focus could be placed on techniques that put pressure on authorities. We could arrange an ‘online-demonstration’ through emailing our councillors and MPs all at the same time. This might grab their attention and put pressure on local authorities. We could actively participate in the Sudan and South Sudan’s ‘All Parliamentary Groups’ which help to advocate on behalf of and to build knowledge about the two countries. It is worth getting a broad idea of the debates already going on in Parliament about Sudan.

Second, the establishment of technical/professional groups as well as active collaborations with other similar organizations. This includes working closely with journalists and human rights organizations interested in Sudanese issues; African and Middle Eastern forums; migrant and refugee organizations; professional groups; and campaigns.

A major problem is the absence of the younger generation from the diaspora’s public work, particularly those born and brought up here, usually aged between 16 and 29. It is obvious from the nature of the events and tools used to communicate that a whole generation has been left out of our picture for Sudan’s future. Our failure to address their rising concerns – youth unemployment, privatization of higher education and so on – has helped fuel conservatism and resulted in an identity crisis among many of them, creating an easy recipe for extremism.

It is our responsibility as a diaspora to reach out, bridge gaps and engage with this generation. Groups and projects such The Youth Factor, Sudan Hub and Our Sudan are promising and should be encouraged and empowered to help create and lead the new Sudan.

Photo by muffinn under a CC Licence.

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human right activist originally from Sudan. She works with a few campaigns in the UK including One Law for All and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She leads the Sudanese Humanists Group.  - See more at: http://newint.org/blog/2012/07/04/open-letter-to-sudans-president/#sthash.aXHV3O0t.dpuf

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human right activist originally from Sudan. She works with a few campaigns in the UK including One Law for All and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She leads the Sudanese Humanists Group.  - See more at: http://newint.org/blog/2012/07/04/open-letter-to-sudans-president/#sthash.aXHV3O0t.dpuf

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human right activist originally from Sudan. She works with a few campaigns in the UK including One Law for All and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She leads the Sudanese Humanists Group.  - See more at: http://newint.org/blog/2012/07/04/open-letter-to-sudans-president/#sthash.aXHV3O0t.dpuf

The new Kandakas: Sudanese women at the frontline of the revolution

Some 2,000 years ago, during the Nubian period, North Sudan was ruled by women, including Queen Kandaka, famous for her strength. Today, a new generation of Kandakas is taking back the streets and fighting at the frontline of the revolution.   

For the past three weeks protests have taken place, with each day being accorded a different theme. Friday is usually the day when the biggest demonstrations take place, and 13 July was  labelled Kandaka Friday, dedicated to all Sudanese women fighting from their homes and the streets, as well as those arrested and in prison.

As we head into the fourth week of demonstrations, it is worth remembering that the origins of the current protests can be found in the female dorms of the University of Khartoum, where students spoke out against austerity measures and fuel prices. That small demonstration has triggered widespread protests around the country. Led by students and youth movements, which are organizing via social media and word of mouth, the whole nation is participating actively and effectively. Political parties, lawyers’, doctors’ and teachers’ unions, as well as ordinary people, are all calling for the overthrow of the regime.

As expected under such a dictatorial regime, the peaceful protests have been brutally repressed by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) forces, police units and informal militias known as ‘Rabata’. Many protesters have been arrested, badly beaten with batons, fired upon with tear gas and shot at with rubber bullets. While the exact number of detainees remains unclear, youth groups and social media activists estimate a total of 2,000 people are being held in known and unknown detention centres. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, at least 100 people remain in detention in Khartoum alone.

While all detainees are subjected to various forms of physical and verbal violence, women face the additional threat of sexual abuse. Families of female detainees and human rights activists are concerned not only about the lack of fair trials, but also about the women’s exposure to the risk of rape. The regime has a long history of sexual violence, as manifested in the recent case of Safiya Ishag. Many of the female detainees, snatched from the street, from public areas or from their own homes by security forces, are held for long periods with no consideration of their state of health or the strain on their families. Two such women are Jaleela Khamees and Alawia Kbaida, activists who remain in detention after several months. And detainee Mawahib Majdud was arrested on the same day as her husband Mohamed Utman Almubark, leaving their children with no-one to look after them.

That the government should continue to humiliate and oppress women is unacceptable. In addition to the way women are abused and subjected to different sorts of violence in detention centres, the government has a tradition of oppressing women through degrading public order laws. An estimated 43,000 women were publically flogged for their ‘un-Islamic’ looks in 2008 alone, according to a Khartoum state police report (Section 152), while stoning remains a court- sanctioned punishment. Eighteen-year-old Intisar Sharief – who has been condemned to death by stoning – is currently fighting her sentence in a Sudanese high court.

We Sudanese women living in Sudan and abroad will no longer tolerate the regime’s actions. Here in Britain, a new body consisting of many women’s rights organizations and human rights groups was formed earlier this month under the name of Women’s UK Pressure Group. The group organized its first action on 14 July in support of Kandaka Friday and the ongoing protests in Sudan. It is looking to consolidate the effort of these different organizations to release the prisoners and register complaints about the situation of female detainees in Sudan.

A memorandum was submitted to British Prime Minister David Cameron during the 14 July demonstration. It appeals to the government to put pressure on the Sudanese government to release all political detainees and allow them fair trials and to fulfil its obligations to protect human rights – including the rights of all women.

Photo (top) of Sudanese woman by Al Jazeera English under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom) of London protests on 14 July by Nahla Mahmoud

An open letter to the President of the Republic of Sudan

Dear Mr Omar al-Bashir

When you took over power, it was uncomfortable. When you fired skilled workers in civic service, it was unreasonable. When you introduced Sharia law, it was painful. When your regime announced war against South Sudan, I feared for my family and friends.

But now, after 23 years under your governance; after 23 years of discriminating, forcing, abusing and killing; now, it is personal.

Here I am in London watching the uprisings in Sudan exploding all around our country. People are fed up of seeking permission from your government just to survive. We were already struggling with your authoritarian system and restrictive laws, but the recent dramatic increase in the cost of living and fuel prices has pushed our country to the brink. We are angry and have reached the point of no return. Nothing is going to shut us up; we will not back down.

Following the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the Sudanese people are now speaking out and protesting in cities across the country, from Khartoum and Eljazeera to Portsudan and Gadarif. Women, children, students, workers – the whole nation is out on our streets. We are calling for change and for you and your regime to step down.

Don’t think that you can get away with arresting and torturing hundreds of thousands of our citizens. We have been watching in horror for the past two weeks. We may see some of these people again after they have been tortured; some we might never hear of again. Sadly, here in London, there is little mention of the protests on the news or in the papers. It seems that a few hundred dead and thousands arrested cannot compete with the death record of Syria or Afghanistan.

Don’t worry, Mr President, we will soon have a record of the numbers of dead for the media to pay attention to!

Before today, I never took the crimes of your regime personally, although I have been subjected to discrimination as a woman, an atheist and an activist. But four days ago, I was devastated when I got word that six of my university classmates had been arrested. Five years ago at the University of Khartoum, I was friends with Amro Azhari, Fayiz Abdullah, Haj Ahmed, Kifah Osman, Fahad Mohamed and dear Mohamed Salah. Now they have all been arrested. No-one knows where they are or what’s going to happen to them.

So now it is personal, Mr al-Bashir. Very personal. And you should be very worried, because we have an entire country of individuals just like me who are taking this personally. It is not only my friends who are threatened by your regime: there are hundreds of our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins and friends who must be let free.

I cannot imagine what it is like in your prisons or Biut alashbah [torturing/ghost houses].There are few people who have lived to tell their stories, but Waiel Taha and Naglaa Sid-Ahmed’s recent stories are among the most terrifying. Your regime’s crimes continue to pile up: the case of Safia Ishag caught many people’s attention as she was arrested and gang-raped by three of your police officers. Safia is now somewhere outside of the country, having been threatened for pursuing her case.

Unfortunately, the situation may be repeating itself. Three days ago, two feminist and human right activists (Kareema Fatih-Alrahman and Sarah Daif-Allah) were arrested while protesting. Nothing is clear yet because your officers will not allow visitors or give the women access to lawyers. From what we have seen from similar situations in the past, my guess is that the least they will be subjected to is sexual assault; I won’t allow myself to imagine what else could happen.

Mr al-Bashir, what you have done to our country is deplorable. It breaks my heart to see this happening. But if you look around you at the protests and the actions of my fellow citizens, you will understand that these are more than angry, hungry, hopeless people causing problems on the streets. We want our children to have access to education, women to gain equal rights as men, rural areas to retrieve healthcare and everyone to have a home in Sudan. We want change, we want real change.

Finally, as a Sudanese, an activist and a human, I will join with my fellow citizens to use every available platform to push you out of power and change your regime. I call on every individual in the Sudanese diaspora in London and the world to act. I call on the international community to help and support the Sudanese nation to overthrow your authoritarian government and to achieve civic and democratic change.

Mr President, now it’s personal for the Sudanese people. Your regime’s time is coming to an end.

Nahla Mahmoud
London
30 June 2012

Photo of Omar al-Bashir: openDemocracy under a CC Licence

Photo of Sudan protests in London: M. Ali Nogoud

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmentalist and human right activist originally from Sudan. She works with a few campaigns in the UK including One Law for All and Secular Middle East and North Africa. She leads the Sudanese Humanists Group

This letter was previously published on the Young Professionals in Human Rights website.

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