Sudan’s Political Detainees Finally Released – Should We Be Celebrating?

16 April 2018

Background: Why were arrests made?
The Government of Sudan (GoS) introduced austerity measures earlier this year that cut subsidies and stopped the import of wheat. Soon, sporadic waves of peaceful demonstrations erupted that were labelled the ‘Bread protests’. The GoS responded to the upheaval claiming that the stringent measures were necessary to counter the black market manipulation that had created mass inflation and threatened to destabilise the Sudanese economy by devaluing the local currency. How much truth there is to this statement is questionable as financial analysts unanimously disagreed. Rather, Governmental policies, internal conflicts and endemic corruption were seen as the reason, contributing to botched management of the national economy.

With public protests came a severe crackdown, detaining activists and students who dared to rise up against unfair policies that saw the price of bread double, practically overnight. An estimated 80 – 130 people (some reports estimated the figure to be higher) including high profile opposition figures, were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned during the protests and later targeted at their homes, workplace and on the streets. The severe action that came in response to the peaceful protests alarmed the international community, prompting calls for the release of detainees who were being inhumanely treated. Prisoners detained by the GoS are routinely subjected to violence, long interrogations, enforced disappearance and refused access to healthcare, medication, family & legal representation.


Bread prices doubled overnight due to Government austerity measures that cut subsidies
Angry Sudanese queued outside bakeries in Khartoum as bread prices doubled overnight, with bakers blaming a government decision to end wheat subsidies. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Prisoner Release
In February, the GoS claimed they had released more than 50 detainees, and while this figure is in doubt, estimates by rights groups in Sudan maintained that 90+ were still being held incommunicado. What was happening with their cases? What were they charged with? Would they be released anytime soon? According to HRW, the head of the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) told the media in no uncertain terms that the remaining detainees would only be released once the opposition ceases its protests. Outrageous as this may seem, with the power that the NISS and the Armed Forces yield in Sudan, this is a normal occurrence. Their autocratic tendencies in response to the protests are yet another notch in a long list of similar actions that have been darkening the Human Rights situation in the troubled country.

In a turn of events, President Bashir has unexpectedly ordered the release of all political detainees – insert resounding cheers for the detained, their family and friends and groups that have been fighting for their release! So, what is behind such a gracious order, handed down by a war criminal indicted by the ICC on crimes against humanity? Is this a step forward in the right direction for the Human Rights situation in Sudan? The answer, no. Let’s not be fooled by this order, as inclined as we may be to believe that this signals progress for Sudan.


Why is this latest move not a cause for celebration?
Crucially, Bashir’s order as reported by state media SUNA, is absent of any fine details. The decree does not come attached with any names of prisoners, nor who is set to be released. Red flags? Yes, plenty. As mentioned before, high profile opposition figures are currently detained, such as Khaled Omar, leader of the Sudanese Congress Party and Mokhtar Al-Khatib, leader of the Sudanese Communist Party, and well-known rights activist Salih Mahmoud, among countless others. If names nor numbers are not made public, what is the reality that they will be able to walk free? Slim to none, especially since enforced disappearance is a common tactic of suppression employed by the GoS. With no information regarding the who, where and health of detainees, how can we ascertain that all have actually been released? It would be hard to celebrate a mock order that has no real value.


Salih Mahmoud
Salih Mahmoud, Human Rights Activist, was detained during the bread protests in January 2018. He spent two decades giving free legal representation to people subject to arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses before his own imprisonment. (EP/2017)


The motives behind the order
According to state news outlet SUNA, Bashir announced the release of political detainees in a bid to ‘promote peace and harmony among all political parties to create a positive environment for achieving national goals’. This reportedly came out of the insistence from opposition groups to allow detainees an opportunity to a legal process. Hard to believe, since in 2015, prisoner release was a main reason for the collapse of a national dialogue that was orchestrated between the Bashir-led Government and the opposition. Against the violent conflicts that continue to run rampant in many parts of the country (ie Darfur and the Two Areas – South Kordofan & Blue Nile), Bashir courteously agreed to a two-month ceasefire while talks took place. However, it didn’t take long before 18 of 21 parties involved withdrew from the process and fighting resumed, because the GoS refused to end their suppression of political freedoms. Since these 2015 talks broke down, no similar conciliatory efforts were made between groups, which makes this sudden backtracking open to criticism and mistrust.

In hopes of appeasing the international community and securing foreign investment, Sudan has to demonstrate much needed progression amid years of internal conflict and war. These efforts were not helped by the breakdown of the talks; however, the rebranding of Sudan was kick-started by last year’s lifting of US sanctions (rewarded for their efforts in counterterrorism). Not to forget the UK’s presence, a House of Lords delegation is currently on a visit to Sudan despite widespread concern that followed an economic forum held in 2017 facilitating the pursuit of investment opportunities between the two countries.

Moreover, with the Khartoum Process that aims to curb migration from Africa to the European continent through an investment of almost €215 million and the Valletta Summit that brought a further €173 million for migration management; Sudan received additional funds and training from Germany and Italy to prevent the influx of African refugees reaching their borders. The effects of this, unknowingly or perhaps knowingly, is the strengthened capability and extended reach of the Rapid Support Force (RSF), that have now added torture of refugees to its resumé of violence and offensives against Sudanese citizens. Born out of the Janjaweed Militia, the RSF were initially utilised by the GoS to fight rebel groups in Darfur, but under the NISS, their duties now comprise of strikes in the Two Areas, as well as Libya border patrols, rounding up and abusing Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees from crossing the Mediterranean.

In order to cooperate with powerful wealthy bodies who are willing to push Sudan’s appalling Human Rights record to the backseat in favour of their own agenda, Bashir seems prepared to make superficial concessions to pacify these international actors.

On top of this, most compellingly, a visit by an independent expert of the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) scheduled for the 14th – 24th April has almost definitely spurred the speedy release of detainees. The visit is intended to ‘assess the implementation of recommendations made to the Government’, with a specific focus on the actions ‘taken to reform the current legal framework, which infringes on the exercise of political and civil rights and fundamental freedoms’. There is no need to highlight that without any reservation, this is undoubtedly, the major factor in the release of the political detainees. If the report, due to be published in September 2018, portrays even an inkling of positive advances in the Human Rights situation in Sudan, economic investments are sure to flood in to an emerging market.


Sudanese President Bashir
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ordered the release of all political detainees on 10th April 2018

What needs to happen for a celebration?
With recent developments in the political and economic arena in Sudan, there needs to be significant improvements to their Human Rights record, and a ceasefire allowing for humanitarian access & political engagement of opposing groups. These terms should be introduced as prerequisites to further investments, which would enforce vital change to a struggling nation. Temporary moves such as prisoner release or the engagement with refugees and terrorism should not serve to stifle opposition from our nations that hold essential basic political freedoms in high regard. As long as foreign bodies are willing to engage on terms that benefit them, there will be no fundamental change to GoS policies and behaviours as arbitrary arrests continue against a backdrop where dissenting voices are actively being silenced. We need to stop being complicit in Bashir’s crimes and work towards an internal dialogue that addresses the fundamental issues in governance, which will certainly be a cause for celebration.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made on the blog

Read HM Government’s response to Baroness Cox’s question on the Sudanese arrests back in February, here

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