Two young Sudanese human rights activists are at risk of being sentenced for “trumped-up charges” for publicly demanding justice for crimes reportedly committed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the country. A woman media activist faces charges for criticising the militia on Facebook.
In a statement on Monday, the New York-based African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) urged the Sudanese authorities “to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as provided for in article 56 and 57 of the Constitutional Declaration of 2019 and international and regional human rights treaties that Sudan is a state party to” and drop all charges levelled against civic rights activists and human rights defenders Musab Zakaria (19) and Suleiman Jamal (25).
On September 11, at about 13:00, members of the RSF detained the two activists from inside a mosque in Ombadda district in Omdurman as they protested against Lt Gen Mohamed Dagalo ‘Hemeti’, Vice-President of the Sovereignty Council and RSF Commander-in-Chief of the RSF*, present at the mosque, and demanded justice and accountability for crimes committed by the RSF against the civilian population.
The two young men were at first taken to an unknown location but were later produced at the El Rashideen police station in Omdurman. A criminal case was filed against them under Art. 69 (Disturbance of public peace) and Art 77 (Public nuisance) of the 1991 Criminal Law. Each charge carries a penalty of three-months imprisonment, a fine or whipping of up to 20 lashes. The criminal case was filed against them without hearing any complainant or witnesses.
The following day, investigations were completed as a police officer showed up as a complainant. He was heard and the activists, who had been transported to a police station in Khartoum North, were released on bail. The criminal case is still pending and will be transferred to court at any given time, ACJPS notes.
On September 15, media activist Aysha El Majidi was detained following charges of defamation under Art. 159 of the 1991 Criminal Law separately filed by the RSF and the Empowerment Elimination Committee against her. She was released the following day. The case is still pending, the African Centre said.
The reason for the charges was an article on El Majidi’s Facebook account where she called for the merge of the RSF with the Sudan Armed Forces: “The Rapid Support Forces must be dissolved because they are not useful. There is no need for them in the first place, and they are of a very high cost to the state budget [..] The RSF barracks should be transformed into hospitals, child care homes, orphanages, and so on.”
In another post, she criticised the Empowerment Elimination Committee by saying that history confirms that the Committee “every day increases the injustice and pain of the people”.
The organisation has further documented an incident where a Sudanese journalist and human rights defender was also charged with defamation based on a Facebook post where she criticised the RSF.
The Centre calls on the Sudanese authorities to immediately drop all charges against the young activists and all other human rights defenders “detained on trumped-up charges. The authorities should “instruct security forces to stop targeting activists and should cease using the criminal code to silence or restrict activists”.
Criticism not allowed
The use of the Criminal Law to silence or intimidate those exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly in Sudan is not new. “The old regime [led by Omar Al Bashir] progressively and deliberately violated the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly through arrest, detention and prosecution of peaceful protesters for malicious and fabricated charges” usually under articles 69 and 77 of the Criminal Law. “Criminal charges levelled against citizens including activists, have often lacked legitimacy and unduly restricted the right to freedom of expression and assembly,” ACJPS states.
In March this year, ACJPS reported that activist Khadeeja El Deweihi was charged with publishing false news under Art 24 of the 2018 Cybercrime Act, based on her Facebook post that tackled the health situation in Sudan.
In October 2020, six young artists were charged with disturbance of public peace and public nuisance for chanting revolutionary slogans inside jail cells. In 2019, ACJPS documented several human rights defenders and activists detained for actual or suspected participation in peaceful protests.
In the years before, criticism of the RSF as well led to threats and detention. In May 2014, National Umma Party President El Sadig El Mahdi was detained for accusing the government militia of committing war crimes in Darfur and operating beyond the scope of the regular armed troops. A month later, Ibrahim El Sheikh, Chairman of the Sudanese Congress Party was detained in En Nehoud in West Kordofan for the same reason.
* The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) was set up by the ousted Al Bashir regime in 2013, to fight against the armed movements in the country. The militia which grew out of the Janjaweed militiamen who fought for the Sudanese government in Darfur since the war broke out 2003, is widely believed to be responsible for atrocities in the region in the past six-seven years. The RSF are also held responsible for the violent break-up of the Khartoum sit-in in June 3 last year.
Officially, the RSF was integrated into the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) two years ago. In the August 2019 Constitutional Charter it was agreed that both the army and the RSF will fall under the command of the “Supreme Commander of the Sudan Armed Forces”. At the same time however, the militia stayed a force unto intself, commanded by Mohamed Dagalo ‘Hemeti’, Vice-President of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council.