(New York) - Violations of civil and political rights by Sudanese security forces throughout the country are seriously undermining prospects for free, fair, and credible elections in April 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.
In the critical period leading up to and including voter registration in November and December 2009, both national and southern Sudanese authorities restricted basic rights, in violation of the Sudanese constitution and international law.
In northern Sudan, security forces arbitrarily arrested members and election observers of opposition political parties and activists. In one example from South Darfur, national security forces beat and arrested an election observer and detained him without charge for 25 days. In Khartoum, the capital, armed national security forces assaulted and arrested members of an activist group for distributing fliers with slogans opposing President Omar al-Bashir.
"The Khartoum government is still using its security forces to harass and abuse those who speak out against the ruling National Congress Party," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "That is no environment for holding free, fair, and transparent elections."
The Khartoum government has also used excessive force to suppress peaceful assembly and has prevented free association and expression. On December 7 and 14, police and national security forces violently dispersed massive peaceful demonstrations in Khartoum and other towns, using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and other weapons. In many locations across northern Sudan, authorities also interrupted or refused permission for public events, including training about the elections process conducted by civil society organizations.
In Southern Sudan, Human Rights Watch researchers who visited in November and December found that southern soldiers and police arbitrarily arrested, detained, and mistreated members of political parties opposed to the southern ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM and northern ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are the two signatories to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended more than 20 years of civil war in Sudan.
In Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, for example, authorities arrested Tong Lual Ayat, head of the United Democratic Party, on October 22, alleging that his party was not properly registered, detained him in a safe house for two weeks, and then transferred him to a military barracks. "I was placed under a tree and chained to the tree, even at night," Ayat told Human Rights Watch. He was held there for another 16 days.
Human Rights Watch also documented cases targeting members of SPLM-DC, a breakaway political party that Southern Sudan authorities have accused of links with the northern ruling NCP.
"Authorities in Southern Sudan should immediately end their arrests of people simply for their membership in a political party," said Gagnon.
Earlier in January, the ruling party nominated al-Bashir, who is being sought by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, as its presidential candidate to run for another term.
Human Rights Watch called on stakeholders to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the European Union, and the African Union to deploy international elections observers urgently. Currently, the Carter Center is the only international observation mission in Sudan.
"With less than three months to elections and with campaigning season starting in February, a robust international observer presence is needed now," Gagnon said. "Careful monitoring is even more pressing considering that al-Bashir is wanted for war crimes."
After several postponements, the Sudanese government announced it will hold national elections in April. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended more than 20 years of civil war, calls for national elections, along with a series of democratic reforms designed to "make unity attractive" before 2011, when southerners will vote in a referendum on self-determination.
To date, the government has not enacted the required democratic reforms and many other provisions in the peace agreement. Following tense negotiations between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in late December, parliament passed a new national security law, one of the required reforms. However, the new law retains broad powers of search, seizure, arrest, and detention that fall short of the envisioned changes and violate international standards for due process.
The national unity government and southern authorities are moving ahead with election preparations. In November and December the National Elections Commission (NEC) and the state-level commissions carried out voter registration over a five-week period, ending December 7.
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression and Assembly in Northern Sudan
On December 7 and 14, security forces in Khartoum and other northern cities violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations that the SPLM and other political parties had organized to protest the ruling NCP's failure to enact democratic reforms ahead of the elections.
Witnesses told Human Rights that on the morning of December 7, riot police and security forces arrested more than 160 people, including political leaders and journalists, and injured more than 40 people while dispersing crowds in Khartoum using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and other weapons.
In one episode that day, police blocked a bridge in Omdurman, a suburb of Khartoum, prompting people to jump off the sides, resulting in injuries. A 24-year old student who was on the bridge told Human Rights Watch that police attacked him with clubs and inflicted head injuries that required stitches.
On December 14, riot police and security forces again used excessive force to disperse crowds and made scores of arrests. Hafiz Ibrahim Abdulgadir, a former minister of local government in Al Gezira state, told Sudan Radio Services that national security officials forced him out of his car, beat him severely, and dropped him off in a nearby location in Omdurman.
On both days, national security forces and police also assaulted and arrested journalists, in some instances inside their newsrooms.
The government has also refused to grant permission for public rallies and other events, though groups made the required applications. On December 16, a presidential adviser and former head of national security, Salah Ghosh, announced that the government would not allow any public demonstrations, saying conditions were "not suitable for this form of expression."
Prior to the December crackdowns, government authorities had already prevented or banned numerous public gatherings and events related directly to elections. In November and December, the government either cancelled, denied permission for, or interrupted at least two training sessions on election monitoring in Kassala, eastern Sudan; two public meetings in Kosti, White Nile state; a public speech in support of an independent presidential candidate in Khartoum; and dozens of public rallies.
Harassment of Activists and Elections Observers in Northern States
Human Rights Watch received credible reports from opposition political parties that police and national security officials restricted movement and speech of their election observers, particularly when they complained of actions by ruling NCP members and members of popular committees, groups of local leaders who certify residency.
On November 8 at a Khartoum registration center, a police officer beat a female student member of the Communist Party when she refused to surrender her voter registration card to the popular committee. Two days later, security forces detained an Umma Party observer who complained that ruling party members were misrepresenting themselves as elections officials, and had improperly collected voter registration cards.
In South Darfur, authorities arrested and detained a Communist Party observer, Tayfour Elamin Abdullah, for 25 days when he told people at a voter registration center they should not give their registration cards to the ruling party. Abdullah told Human Rights Watch that security officials beat him in custody and told him to leave the Communist Party.
More broadly, the Sudanese government has harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested human rights activists who speak out about elections, Darfur, or other sensitive topics.
On December 6, national security forces assaulted two student activists for distributing fliers with anti-Bashir messages and to promote voter registration in a public park in Khartoum. The security officers beat them and detained them for several hours. On November 22, security forces arrested an elderly man when he was at the hospital for diabetes treatment because he had fliers from the same group.
In Darfur, authorities continue to detain 16 leaders from displaced persons camps in El Fasher, North Darfur, under emergency laws that grant sweeping powers of detention to state authorities. Police arrested the group in early August while investigating a murder, but the prosecutor released them for lack of evidence. Security officers re-arrested many of them without explanation.
Dozens of Darfuri student activists remain in detention. Abdelmajeed Salih, a well known Darfuri activist who has spoken out about Darfur and international justice and who had been in detention without charge since August, was released January 16. He told Human Rights Watch that on August 28 a group of armed national security officers approached him and his friend in Khartoum, beat them with the backs of their guns, then detained them.
"During the first five days they were very aggressive, hitting me with tubes and planks of wood until I lost consciousness and they brought me to a doctor," he said. "They were shouting in my face that I am a traitor and spying for foreign countries."
At least four members of the United Popular Front, a student group affiliated with the Abdel Wahid faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, which has publicly supported the ICC arrest warrant for al-Bashir, have been held without charge since April.
One member of the group, arrested in early October in Hasahisa, al Gezira state, was held for 13 days and severally beaten before being released. On October 25, security forces arrested a Darfuri student leader at Khartoum University for organizing a demonstration protesting school fees. After subjecting him to intense interrogation and beating, they dropped him in a public park at 2 a.m.
Repression of Political Freedoms in Southern Sudan
Human Rights Watch found that Southern Sudan authorities arrested and detained dozens of members of the northern ruling NCP and political parties seen to be in alliance with it, accusing them of various irregularities without bringing charges.
In the episode in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Ayat, head of the newly formed United Democratic Party, reported to Human Rights Watch that state authorities ordered his arrest on October 22, alleging his party was not properly registered. Southern police held him in a safe house in town for two weeks, then transferred him to a military prison at Wunyiit.
"I was placed under a tree and chained to the tree, even at night," he said. "The prison is one house surrounded by a fence. I spent 16 days there. The commander said he would not tell my family where I was, and they denied me food and toilet."
In Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, security officials arrested and detained a member of the Communist Party, Ismail Suliman, but did not charge him with any crime. He told Human Rights Watch that security officials approached him while he was hanging a party banner in Juba at 9 p.m. on December 5, and took him to a military detention center and interrogated him about his ethnicity and political party activities. They held him for three days.
SPLM-DC, a party established in June by former Sudanese foreign minister, Lam Akol, has reported dozens of arrests and detentions of its members. Southern politicians have publicly accused Akol, a candidate for president, of allegiance to the NCP and of fueling inter-ethnic fighting in Upper Nile state. In early November, the South Sudan government issued a letter ordering state governors to cooperate with all political parties except SPLM-DC.
In Western Bahr el Ghazal, soldiers arrested 14 members of the party on September 22, and took them to a military barracks, then interrogated and beat them. Ten were released, but four remain in a military detention center without charge.
In Upper Nile state on October 1, government soldiers arrested 22 members of the SPLM-DC in Renk, detained them in military barracks, interrogated them, beat them, and forced them to sign an agreement to stop their political activities, UN human rights staff said. They were held for three days. Party members have also been detained in Yei, Rumbek, and other towns.
The NCP also reported numerous arrests and detentions in towns across Southern Sudan, often on accusations of improperly registering their members. In Central Equatoria, a member in Morobo told Human Rights Watch that he was detained and beaten in early December for registering members. Another member reported to Human Rights Watch that he had been arrested with a group of 14 others in Yei town and detained on accusations of paying people to register as NCP, a charge he denies.
Risk of Violence in Southern Sudan
Although voter registration across Sudan was largely peaceful, inter-ethnic violence interrupted or delayed registration in some remote locations. In at least one case, a dispute over the National Elections Commission's constituency demarcations triggered violence in Southern Sudan.
On November 15, Samson Kwaje, minister of agriculture in the Southern Sudan government, visited Wondoruba payam, an administrative area west of Juba town, to encourage voter registration. During the visit armed members of the community shot Kwaje, wounding him in his left arm, in protest over his perceived attempts to move their payam to a neighboring county against their will. Kwaje had earlier successfully lodged a complaint to the NEC that included their payam in the neighboring county's electoral constituency.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Southern Sudan security forces dispatched to the scene rounded up suspects, including members of the police force, and beat them. At least five civilians remain in detention in Juba without charge. Assaults on civilians and the prolonged detention of suspects without bringing charges point to systemic flaws in the administration of justice that have been previously reported by Human Rights Watch.
The case also illustrates that the elections process can spark violence, and that conflicts between communities over land and other issues should be addressed before the elections.
Government authorities and the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) have done little to prevent or prepare for likely security problems. As of December, government authorities were just starting to plan to train extra forces to provide security at polling places. The UN mission has been training the nascent Southern Sudan police force, but has no plans to deploy its own forces to hot spots during elections.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the UN mission to make protecting civilians a priority through increased presence and patrolling in volatile areas, better information-gathering and analysis of local dynamics, and helping counterparts in the Southern Sudan government in peace-building and protection efforts.
- The National Unity Government should ensure that government authorities at all levels respect the rights under the constitution and international law to freedom of expression and association, and should stop using excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations.
- Both the national and southern governments should stop arbitrarily arresting and detaining people and mistreating them because of their political opinions; hold accountable police and security forces who violate human rights; and allow for a robust international observer presence with full freedom of movement in all parts of the country.
- The UN mission should increase its presence and patrolling in volatile areas, in line with its mandate to protect civilians.
- International donors and stakeholders should urgently deploy election observers in time to effectively monitor pre-elections conditions.