Background Briefing

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A key reason for continued violence in Darfur is continued impunity for government military and security forces and the Janjaweed. The Sudanese government has not taken any serious steps to halt atrocities committed by anyone. Nor has it altered its manner of waging war against the rebels, which involves attacking those civilian populations it assumes to be rebel supporters.  It continues to use ethnic militias whose members are becoming rich by forcibly evicting farmers from their land to claim the land as their own, and by robbing and looting the farmers’ property and livestock.

There is substantial circumstantial and documentary evidence that the Sudanese government at the highest levels may be responsible for knowingly directing activities constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict in Darfur.29 To date the U.N. Security Council has not adequately responded to the government’s failure to protect its own citizens and rein in and prosecute the members of the ethnic militias responsible for abuses.

The key reason the militias continue to rampage and block return of displaced farmers to their land was provided to Human Rights Watch by Musa Hillal, a self-described tribal leader considered by his displaced neighbors in North Darfur to be the Janjaweed leader of Sudan.  Hillal told Human Rights Watch that when his tribe became active in the conflict, they were only answering the government’s call to arms to fight the Darfurian rebels, and stressed that all his tribe’s operations have been conducted under the command of government army officers.30   The implication was that if such tribal leaders and members are tried for atrocities—which they deny committing—they will claim they were acting under orders of government officials. 

Yet the Sudanese government has often said in the past year31 that it would bring the perpetrators of abuses, and specifically the Janjaweed, to justice. It has not done so. Faced with mounting international pressure over reports of widespread rape and continued attacks on civilians, the government has attempted to create the impression of prosecution.  It has set up a number of committees and commissions as a means of evading the rule of law. The government uses these largely powerless committees as a substitute for the judicial system: instead of bringing criminal charges against Janjaweed leaders, they have referred the entire matter to the commission of inquiry. While the commission is deliberating, the government will not investigate the conduct of any members of the army or Janjaweed who are alleged have committed human rights abuses.  Often such commissions do not take any action, except possibly to issue a report kept secret and soon forgotten by the minister to whom it reports. 

The persistent refusal to prosecute Janjaweed leaders has been tolerated by the international community for too long.  Every day that the Janjaweed are allowed to stay on the land they conquered by expelling its long-term inhabitants is a day closer to the final consolidation of ethnic cleansing.

The government has also provided excuses as to why there are few prosecutions.  In meetings with government officials in Khartoum and various state capitals of Darfur, Human Rights Watch raised questions about the government’s efforts to end impunity.   Their responses, discussed below, were disturbing. 

The Government’s Rape Committee

The government’s recently established committees to investigate the crimes of rape against women in the three states of Darfur are a case in point.32 Human Rights Watch interviewed several members of the committees in October 2004 in Khartoum, and one member in Fashir. Their comments made it clear that the three all-female committees, consisting of judges, police officers, attorneys, and other women in the criminal justice system, were convened hurriedly to “prepare a report for the United Nations.”  The committees were formed on August 8, 2004, and began work on August 13, 2004. 33  The members said they had three weeks to complete the reports. The committee members visited Darfur’s state capitals, reviewed police files, and interviewed women victims.

The rape committees were supposed to have doctors as members, but none were appointed, so no medical examinations could be conducted.34  One U.N. representative witnessed an interview by one of the committees, conducted openly in a displaced persons camp in front of many spectators, including children, indicating a lack of familiarity with standard rape interview techniques and a lack of sensitivity for the victim.35  The committees concluded that Darfur had the same, very low, rate of rape as before the conflict. The reports have not been made public. 

After the committees delivered report to the Minister of Justice in August 2004, they were, in effect, disbanded—except when summoned to speak to visiting foreigners to put a female face to the official denial of rape.  It was clear that the all-female committees were ad hoc and had no budget, no office, no further tasks, meetings, or follow up schedule. The members held full-time positions apart from the committees—and appeared to be qualified and experienced women members of the criminal justice system who under other circumstances might have been able to make a greater contribution. They were “now ready for other demands from the president,”36 one said. “If we have orders to resume our work, we will resume immediately. . . . As a committee, we are ready to execute specific orders.”37

Although they were “given the right to investigate rape cases,” they were not proactive after their initial survey, but waited for complainants to find their way to the correct offices. One committee member said, “I am here [in the Attorney General’s office] and I am ready to receive” complaints from rape victims. 38

Government Efforts to Investigate Rape near Zam Zam Displaced Persons Camp

Representatives of the Attorney General and police said they were ready to receive rape complaints from women, but behaved as though the burden were on victims to present an iron-clad case. However, in the context of the government’s direct involvement in atrocities against the population it is absurd to suggest that many women will come forward and file complaints.

The Attorney General’s office in Fashir, North Darfur, told Human Rights Watch that it went to the internally displaced camp Zam Zam outside of Fashir, where six or more rapes in late September were reported to international agencies. More than twenty women and girls (some as young as eleven years), traveling in small groups on donkeys, had been attacked by uniformed men while returning to the Zam Zam camp from the market in Fashir. Three women and two girls told Human Rights Watch that they were sexually assaulted; others said they were beaten and robbed but managed to escape sexual attack. They had returned to Zam Zam later that night or the next morning, on foot, separately. Several were treated for injuries.

A few days after an angry confrontation between agitated displaced men and the police at the camp, which was defused by the timely intervention of the African Union ceasefire monitors, Attorney General office representatives spent all day in the Zam Zam camp but claimed that no women stepped forward to file rape complaints.39  Furthermore, what these members of the Attorney General’s office omitted to say, and Human Rights Watch learned later, was that a relative of one of the victims, who attempted to report the crimes to a police acquaintance, was arrested for filing a false complaint. He remained in jail for two days until an international human rights representative succeeded in securing his release.40

The representatives of this Attorney General’s office, in addition, displayed a hostile attitude to the allegations of rape in the Zam Zam case. While admitting that they had not investigated the cases, they nevertheless said they did not believe that any rapes had occurred. They also noted that uniforms are worn by many: army, Popular Defence Forces, Janjaweed, even armed robbers.

The Attorney General’s office also said that the victims must provide the names of individuals accused of crimes—and in the cases at Zam Zam, as in most other cases of rape, the assailants were unknown.

Still, the government has conducted few prosecutions of accused rapists, or anyone else. According to the Attorney General of West Darfur, there were seven cases of rape pending in early October 2004, and a conviction on October 4 of a group of Aulad Zeid Arab nomads led by Mohamed Berberi for burning and looting cattle of Erenga and Masalit (African) farmers in January 2004.  Those convicted were sentenced to three years imprisonment and required to pay a fine equivalent to the value of the stolen cattle.41   These few cases against individuals will not restore security to Darfur, however—although they should be pursued and the government should be encouraged to continue along this path.

Government Refusal to Prosecute Janjaweed Leaders

In the context of the large scale of abuses in Darfur, the prosecutions necessary to achieve justice must be prosecutions of those responsible at the highest levels.  The international community has pushed for prosecutions of leaders. But the Sudanese government has so far refused to prosecute them—although it has promised several times to bring them to justice.

In meetings with Human Rights Watch, when the issue of the promised prosecution of Janjaweed was raised, government officials said that an obstacle to prosecution, both of rape and of Janjaweed leaders, was that names of the attackers were not known as the victims were not able to identify them. When asked if they had seen the list of alleged Janjaweed leaders the U.S. government had asked Sudan to prosecute, officials said they had not seen it, but some had heard of it.42  When asked about a specific leader, such as Janjaweed leader Musa Hillal, who has been directly implicated in a commanding role in attacks on civilians, such as the attack on Tawila in February 2004,43 officials said they had no evidence or complaint against him personally, but “if there were reasonable evidence,” they would proceed.44

The Sudanese commission of inquiry was created by presidential decree in May 2004 to investigate all human rights violations by armed militia, assess damage to property and people, and find the root causes of the conflict in Darfur. It has reached no conclusion despite its several months of existence. Its members, all apparently well qualified individuals, told Human Rights Watch that they were not close to finalizing a report.45

This presidential commission of inquiry went to Wadi Saleh, West Darfur, to look into reports that several hundred people were arrested, detained and then taken from Deleig and Mukjar in March 2004 and extrajudicially executed outside the towns by government and militia forces. A police officer who had been in one of the towns during the events gave testimony to the commission that people were indeed taken away and have “disappeared.” Shortly after giving his testimony, however, the police officer was dismissed from his post and is now in hiding.46

A Mukjar resident whose brother was among these dozens of men extrajudicially
executed told Human Rights Watch that a woman who went out collecting firewood saw twenty-nine of the bodies near the Mukjar airstrip. He then went to the police to request permission to bury the bodies: “The commissioner of Mukjar was present but he said nothing. The police said they would send military intelligence and get back to him. Until now there has been no response. Aside from the police there is no other option, no
court, even the commissioner is with them.”47

[29] Human Rights Watch, Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support, A Human Rights Watch briefing paper, July 20, 2004,

[30] Human Rights Watch interview, Musa Hillal, Khartoum, September 27, 2004.

[31] Including the Agreement on Humanitarian Ceasefire on the Conflict in Darfur, April 8, 2004, the Agreement Between the Government of Sudan, The Sudan Liberation Movement, and the Justice and Equality Movement April 25, 2004, the Joint Communiqué between the Government of Sudan and the United Nations, July 3, 2004, and the Darfur Plan of Action signed by the Government of Sudan and the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General Jan Pronk, August 6, 2004.

[32] The committee was established by an order of the Minister of Justice delegating district prosecutor powers to three committees, one for each state, and appointment of three women to each of them. The order states that the committees shall report their work to the minister within two weeks of commencement of work. Ali Mohamed Osman Yassin, Minister of Justice, order “Delegation of district prosecutor powers to investigate crimes of rape against women in the three states of Darfur,” Khartoum, July 28, 2004. 

[33] Human Rights Watch interview, Al Hadia Ali Abdullah, legal advisor, deputy of Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview, rape committee member Judge Hind al Hamo, Khartoum, October 12, 2004.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview, U.N. representative, Geneina, West Darfur, October 17, 2004.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview, Al Hadia Ali Abdullah, legal advisor, deputy of Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview, Al Hadia Ali Abdullah, legal advisor, deputy of Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview, Al Hadia Ali Abdullah, legal advisor, deputy of Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview, Hamid Yacoub Hasab al Kerin Shatta, legal advisor, deputy of Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview, international human rights official, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview, Sherhadin Gibril, Chief Attorney General of West Darfur, Geneina, West Darfur, October 17, 2004. This prosecutor had only been in this office for six months. He noted that, compared to other parts of Sudan where he had served, there were many more murder cases in Darfur. Tribalism was the reason for many kinds of crimes, he said, and made convictions difficult because a member of a tribe would never testify against another member of the same tribe, whether Arab or African.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview, Attorney General of North Darfur, Fashir, North Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[43] See “Militia chief scorns slaughter charge,” The Guardian, July 16, 2004 and Human Rights Watch, Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support, July 20, 2004.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview, Under-Secretary of Justice Abd Elbaiem Mohamed Zumrawi, Khartoum, October 11, 2004.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview, five Committee of Inquiry members, led by Al Haj Dafallah, Khartoum, October 11, 2004. The committee conducted a survey of the literature, including on the internet, visited twenty-four locations in Darfur and interviewed victims and reviewed court records.

[46] Human Rights Watch interviews, Wadi Saleh, October 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interviews, Mukjar, October 16, 2004. Human Rights Watch denounced the killings in April. Human Rights Watch, "Sudan: Government and Militias Conspire in Darfur Killings," April 23, 2004, (retrieved November 8, 2004).

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