Updated: February 25, 2021
Sudan’s transitional government should accelerate legal and institutional reform and visible progress on domestic justice initiatives, Human Rights Watch said today, following its first official visit to the country in over 14 years. International donors should expedite assistance to support the transitional government’s reform agenda.
“Sudan’s leaders confirmed to us in our meetings that they are committed to ensuring genuine reforms and bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious violations,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now is the time to implement these commitments and seize this extraordinary moment of opportunity to secure the democratic, rights-respecting reforms that so many Sudanese took to the streets at great risk to themselves to achieve.”
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On February 12, 2020, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chair of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok met with Roth and Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, and reaffirmed their commitment to hold rights abusers to account. They said that this included cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has warrants for the arrest of former president Omar al-Bashir and four other suspects for atrocities in Darfur.
Al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019 after months of protests in Sudan, which government security forces dispersed violently, killing hundreds of people after protests began in December 2018. A transitional military council took power until a transitional government was formed in August, following a power-sharing agreement between military and civilian groups. The transitional government is headed by an 11-member Sovereign Council for a period of 3 years, to be followed by elections.
At the ICC, al-Bashir faces five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes, and three counts of genocide. These relate to allegations of murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, intentional attacks on the civilian population, pillage, and rape between 2003 and 2008 in Darfur. The transitional government should invite the ICC to Sudan to discuss the terms of engagement and moving forward with prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that transitional authorities have made important progress on rights reforms and accountability. That has included abolishing the criminal charge of apostacy and repressive morality laws, known as the public order regime, as well as criminalizing female genital mutilation and approving draft laws establishing commissions to work on human rights and transitional justice reforms. Human Rights Watch also heard concerns from nongovernmental organizations that there had not been adequate consultation with these groups on the new laws.
The authorities should carry out comprehensive justice system reforms to ensure that people’s rights will be protected at every stage of the justice process, ensure adequate public participation, and address gender discrimination by reviewing legal guardianship, marriage, and inheritance provisions, among others, Human Rights Watch said. Women’s rights groups also told Human Rights Watch that they have not been adequately or fairly represented in the transitional institutions and have been calling for equal representation in appointments for state governors and membership on the legislative council.
Human Rights Watch stressed the need for the government to ensure that reform efforts do not trample on human rights, particularly in efforts to “dismantle” the former government. In November 2019, the transitional government passed a law to dissolve the former ruling party, confiscate its assets, and bar its members from political activities for 10 years. More than 20 former ruling party leaders have been detained and are reportedly held at Kober prison. The authorities should ensure that those arrested are properly charged, have access to lawyers, and are prosecuted in timely, open, and fair trials.
The authorities should also make known the whereabouts of Musa Hilal, the Darfuri tribal leader and former government adviser whose role overseeing human rights abuses in Darfur is well-documented. Hilal has been detained since November 2017 and is standing trial in the military headquarters with other members of the Revolutionary Awakening Council, a political party he formed on January 2014, his family members reported.
Many reforms envisioned in the transitional government’s constitutional charter have yet to be carried out. The legislative council, which was to be formed within three months of the transitional government’s swearing-in, has not yet been formed, pending a peace agreement between the government and opposition armed groups. Most of the rights-focused commissions have also not been formed, delaying organized reform efforts. Such delays impede the government’s ability to debate key laws and policies that are critical for justice and accountability, Human Rights Watch said.
Institutional reforms, particularly relating to security, are urgently needed. Although the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) was renamed the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and no longer detains people, it is not clear that institutional reforms have been made within the organization, which has a record of rights abuses. The authorities have also not reformed any of the state’s other sprawling security institutions. Reforming these agencies is key to providing justice for past crimes and preventing abuses in Sudan in the future, Human Rights Watch said.
The committee set up to investigate the murderous June 3 crackdown by government forces on protesters outside the army headquarters has far from completed its work and, lacking critical resources, has not met international standards for investigations or protecting witnesses. Victims’ families and nongovernmental groups said they were frustrated at its slow pace and inaccessibility, especially for victims of gender-based violence. Government officials should ensure that this committee has the mandate, political backing, and necessary protection to investigate those responsible higher up the chain of command for planning and ordering the dispersal operation, particularly as a member of the Sovereign Council may be implicated.
The attorney-general’s office has set up various new committees to investigate past crimes, including the killings of protesters between December 2018 and al-Bashir’s ousting on April 11, abuses by the former government since 1989, corruption-related crimes, and crimes in Darfur. Investigations are ongoing, but legal immunities – which still exist under a patchwork of laws – remain an obstacle to prosecution, officials told Human Rights Watch.
In December, the authorities announced convictions and death sentences for 29 security personnel in the case of a teacher tortured to death in Kassala in February 2019. The prosecutions of security officers in a regular court, the first case of its kind, is a step toward accountability for a heinous crime, but the prosecutions should not be limited to low-ranking officers. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty under all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.
Investigations and prosecutions of the full range of abuses by the NISS are a critical part of a broader transitional justice program, but they will require resources and expertise. The government should seek assistance from international bodies and donors, who should promptly provide it on flexible terms both at the technical and policy levels.
“Sudan’s leaders say they want to turn the page with genuine reforms and a transition toward a rights-respecting, democratic government that is accountable to the Sudanese people. That will require addressing the past honestly and forthrightly, not trying to forget or bury it,” Roth said. “Making this democratic transition a success will require securing justice and accountability for past atrocities, including the violent dispersal of protesters on June 3, and accelerating the most critical human rights reforms.”