(New York) - Mass arrests in Khartoum of perceived supporters of a Darfur rebel group and other political opponents raise fears of mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests by Sudanese security forces of more than 100 people followed an attack on Sudan’s capital by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) on May 10, 2008 that left dozens of civilians dead or severely injured.
“The Sudanese government may be systematically rounding up suspected rebel or opposition supporters in Khartoum,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Given Khartoum’s record of abuse, there is grave cause for concern about the fate of those detained.”
According to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Sudanese security forces have arrested at least 100 individuals since the attack on May 10, some in house-to-house searches and others at checkpoints set up by police and security forces around Khartoum. Among those arrested are persons with suspected or known links to the opposition Popular Congress party and to Darfur rebel groups. According to government statements, the leader of the Popular Congress, Hassan al-Turabi, and several party members were arrested in the early hours of May 12.
Although al-Turabi has reportedly been released, the whereabouts of the majority of those arrested are unknown. Human Rights Watch received unconfirmed reports that some of those arrested have been tortured and that at least two people have been summarily executed in public.
Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to ensure that those arrested are promptly charged or released, and tried in accordance with international fair trial standards.
Residents in the capital also told Human Rights Watch that at least 60 civilians were killed or injured in clashes between government and JEM forces, following an attack by JEM on Omdurman, a western suburb of Khartoum, in the early afternoon on May 10.
Some 1,000 JEM fighters reached Omdurman on May 10 in a column of 50 to 150 vehicles and entered several districts, including the main market of Souq Libya and residential areas of Umbada, Al-Thoura, and Al-Muhandiseen. Government forces counterattacked with tanks and helicopter gunships. Residents reported that fighting was continuing on May 12 in the markets of Al-Souq Al-Sha’bi in Omdurman and Al-Souq Al-Arabi, AlG’abat and Al-Huria Street in central Khartoum.
“Details of the clashes are unclear, but the continuing fighting in the markets means civilians are at terrible risk,” said Gagnon. “Sudanese forces and the rebels should comply with the laws of war and spare civilians from harm.”
The laws of war do not prohibit military forces from fighting in urban areas, but parties to a conflict are required to take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians. Prohibited are attacks that are indiscriminate or that would cause civilian harm disproportionate to the military gain. Belligerents should avoid deploying within or near densely populated areas, and they should seek to remove civilians from the vicinity of military forces.
Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about the possible Sudanese government response to the JEM attacks, which marked the first time that a rebel group has engaged government forces near the capital. The government has a long record of responding to perceived rebel gains in Darfur and elsewhere with deliberate attacks against the civilian population in Darfur.
“We fear the Sudanese government will respond as it has in the past, with attacks against civilians in Darfur,” said Gagnon. “Darfur needs the international peacekeeping force to deploy in full as quickly as possible.”