The Sudanese government has arbitrarily detained two human rights activists, apparently for their work in the war-torn region of Darfur in western Sudan, Human Rights Watch said today. Both are feared to be at risk of inhumane treatment, miscarriage of justice and possible execution.

Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, the head of a voluntary organization that provides humanitarian assistance and human rights training, was arrested on December 28 and has been charged with a variety of capital offenses against the state. Saleh Mahmud Osman, a human rights lawyer, was arrested on February 1, 2004 and has been held without charge.

“For the past year, the Sudanese government and its militias have waged war on the people of Darfur,” said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Now the government is persecuting those who are trying to protect these voiceless victims.”

Since early last year, the Sudanese army and government-backed Arab nomadic militias known as janjaweed have embarked on a destructive campaign to rid Darfur of the rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and their civilian supporters. These two Darfur-based rebel groups were formed in the last fourteen months following increasing government-sponsored attacks on the African Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit communities in north and west Darfur.

The government-led campaign has led to an estimated 3,000 civilian deaths, the widespread devastation of the farming areas of the region, and the destruction of the local economy. Government-backed militias have attacked, looted and burned villages while the government has bombed civilian targets and forbidden or severely restricted humanitarian access to the population at risk in Darfur.

Mudawi, director of the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO), had just returned from a humanitarian mission to Darfur, where he distributed aid to internally displaced persons. He was arrested by security forces in Khartoum and is detained in Kober prison, Khartoum, where he has been allowed to see his wife and lawyer in the presence of police. Shortly after his arrest, he went on a two-day hunger strike, demanding to be charged or released. On February 8 he was charged with waging war against the state, provoking hatred among religious sects, spying, releasing secret information, revealing military information and establishing a criminal organization. Some of these charges carry the death penalty.

Saleh Mahmud, a human rights lawyer, works in Nyala, South Darfur, providing free legal assistance to persons accused or convicted of crimes without fair trial, and in many instances without counsel at the summary trial proceedings. He is a member of the lawyers’ network of the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT), and many of his clients face severe punishments, such as the death penalty or cross amputation—amputation of the right foot and the left hand, or vice versa. He was arrested in Wad Medani, Gezira state in eastern Sudan, by security forces on February 1, and transferred to Khartoum two days later. He is currently being held in Kober prison and he has not been charged with a crime.

Sudan has a record of arresting and harassing human rights defenders, and of torturing persons suspected of sympathizing with armed rebels, including in the Darfur region. Incommunicado detention in particular raises the danger of torture, and Human Rights Watch urges that all detainees be given access to private visits from family and legal counsel.

Human Rights Watch urges the Sudanese government to release Saleh Mahmud from detention or promptly charge him with a crime. The government should also promptly provide Dr. Mudawi with a fair hearing—in which he is represented by his counsel—to determine whether there is any merit to the charges against him, and to abstain from seeking the death penalty should the case against him proceed. The death penalty is a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality. The intrinsic fallibility of criminal justice systems assures that even when fair trial rights are respected, innocent persons may be executed.