(New York) - The Sudanese government should charge or release Darfuri activists arrested between October 30 and November 1, 2010, by national security agents in Khartoum, Human Rights Watch said today.  The arrests underscore the government's continued use of repressive laws to target human rights defenders from Darfur and to restrict information about the ongoing abuses there, Human Rights Watch said.

Abderahman Gassim, a prominent Darfuri human rights lawyer and active member of the Darfur Bar Association, was arrested in downtown Khartoum.  The same evening, security officials arrested at least eight Darfuri male and female activists at other Khartoum locations, including the office of the Human Rights and Advocacy Network for Democracy (HAND), a coalition of Darfuri groups. Security officials have since arrested another female member of the coalition in Khartoum, and closed the HAND offices.

"The government appears to be targeting this group of people for their important work on Darfur, not because they committed any crime," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It should immediately charge these individuals or release them."

The exact number of those arrested is not known, nor has the government revealed where they are being held. However, all those arrested are Darfuri activists, and most are members of HAND, according to information obtained by Human Rights Watch.

HAND members have come under increasing scrutiny by national security officials. In August, security officials questioned members about the activities of HAND and urged them to stop their work.

"These arrests are clearly part of a wider pattern of stifling expression about ongoing human rights abuses in Darfur," Peligal said. "The government continues to clash with rebels and attack civilians, in violation of international humanitarian laws, and these activists are among the very few speaking out about it."

Little public information about the ongoing conflict and human rights concerns in Darfur has emerged from Darfur following the International Criminal Court's issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on March 4, 2009. Afterward, the government expelled 13 international organizations from Sudan and closed down three Sudanese human rights groups. The African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) does not report publicly about the human rights situation in Darfur, and the UN office coordinating humanitarian affairs stopped publishing weekly reports in November 2009.

"Information about what is going on in Darfur is especially important now with international attention more focused on the Sudanese referendum," said Peligal.

Sudan will hold a referendum on southern self-determination in January, according to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a 22-year civil war in Sudan.

Sudanese authorities have long used national security powers to arrest and detain political activists, often mistreating or torturing them in detention, based on cases documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and many other groups over the years.

Human Rights Watch urged the government of Sudan to ensure that the most recent detentions are properly recorded and that all due process protections are afforded to the detainees, including access to counsel and medical care. Gassim has a medical condition that requires special care.

International standards require that detained people be charged promptly after their arrest and granted access to counsel and medical care.  However, the repressive National Security Act gives Sudanese security officials broad powers of arrest and permits them to detain individuals for up to four and a half months without judicial review, in violation of international standards.