Updated: March 6, 2021
Human Rights Watch on Monday accused Sudanese authorities of using excessive force, including lethal force, against protesters on October 15, 2020, leading to the deaths of seven protesters, including a 16-year old boy, as well as a security official. About 25 people were injured, most from bullet wounds.
The protests took place in the town of Kassala two days after the prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, dismissed the governor of Kassala state, Saleh Amar. This followed weeks of unrest between members of Amar’s Beni Amar tribe and members of the Hadandawa tribe, who opposed his appointment.
“Sudan’s transitional authorities should make clear that security forces are not above the law by promptly and strictly holding to account all those who violate it,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The people of Sudan should be able to exercise their right to peaceful protest without fearing for their lives.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 witnesses, including doctors, about the events in Kassala by phone and reviewed video footage, photographs, and forensic reports.
On October 15, protesters gathered in Kassala’s main square to hear speeches, and around mid-morning, some protesters headed toward the state government building, near the al-Gash bridge, which connects the western and eastern parts of the town. At this intersection, security forces consisting of the Central Reserve Police (CRP), the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) tried to stop the protesters by firing live ammunition and teargas into the air. After the initial confrontation, police officers who had been stationed on a side street, fired directly at protesters killing two, including Abdalla Hussein Abubaker, 16.
A 24-year-old protester told Human Rights Watch:
I could see security forces stationed ahead of us, near the entrance of al-Gash bridge and state government building, almost 500-700 meters away. There, we started hearing gunshots followed by teargas. I saw SAF soldiers shooting in the air. Suddenly, gunshots increased, and I could hear people around me saying some protesters had been hit.
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The second stand-off happened outside the hospital where wounded protestors were being treated. CRP forces fired teargas at crowds gathered outside the hospital, many of whom came to donate blood. One witness said that teargas canisters were shot into the hospital. In response, protesters erected barricades at the approach to the hospital entrance.
Shortly afterward, three RSF vehicles, one of which carried the body of a dead soldier, sought access to the hospital, but protesters refused to allow the vehicles to approach the building entrance, a journalist interviewed said. Tensions mounted. Two videos, analyzed by Human Rights Watch, show the RSF vehicles reversing to move out of a crowd of protesters. One vehicle begins to turn around while people inside the vehicle can be seen shooting in the direction of the protestors. Witnesses said five people were killed.
A journalist at the scene said:
I immediately ran to find shelter behind the walls of a pharmacy near the hospital. One protester was near me and I was holding him, urging him not to expose himself to RSF. He ran out from our shelter. Seconds later, I heard a gunshot and saw him falling down with blood covering his clothes and chest. I ran toward his body. With a few others we carried him to the hospital. There the doctors said he was dead.
Another video taken around the same period shows a large pool of blood at the entrance to the pharmacy. A second video also filmed in front of the pharmacy shows another pool of blood.
Sudan’s information minister announced later that day that the Attorney-General’s Office was opening an investigation into the events but blamed protesters for causing the killings by clashing with security forces. While some protesters insulted security officers, threw rocks, and set-up barricades outside the hospital, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any documented incident involving protesters that posed a clear threat to life of the security forces, or others the forces were protecting.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that Sudan relies too heavily on military or militarized forces for crowd control, and that those forces are either not properly trained in law enforcement tactics or fail to use them, instead using excessive and lethal force. In particular the forces fail to recognize their obligations to respect, protect, and facilitate protesters’ right to peaceful assembly and expression, as well as the limitations imposed on them under human rights law regarding the use of force.
International human rights standards only permit using force when strictly necessary to defend against imminent harm. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result, and should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the attorney-general on November 24 to share its conclusions and to ask for updates and information on steps taken by the authorities in response but has received no response at time of writing.
The attorney-general should investigate and hold accountable officers involved in the unlawful use of force, including those responsible under the chain of command, and the transitional government should embark on security sector reforms. Such reforms should include abolishing immunity provisions that shield officials from accountability, vetting members of security forces to exclude anyone implicated in abuses, and ensuring that forces understand their human rights obligations and the importance of upholding them, especially in the context of crowd control, Human Rights Watch said.
“Peaceful protesters should not have to contend with the military on the streets, but instead should be met by well-trained and accountable law enforcement,” Sawyer said. “The transitional government has said it wants to break with the abusive days of Omar Bashir, but for that to happen, they have to do much more to reform abusive security forces.”