(Nairobi) - The arrest of more than 60 Sudanese women's rights activists on December 14, 2010, for peacefully protesting the lashing of a woman by police shows the urgent need to reform Sudan's public order laws and practices, Human Rights Watch said today. The system imposes illegitimate restrictions on a range of personal behavior and public expression and disproportionately targets women, Human Rights Watch said.
The lashing case, in a public place in Omdurman in November, garnered public attention as it was captured on a video clip, widely circulated on the internet and in the media.
"Sudanese authorities should be following Sudan's own bill of rights, not cracking down on peaceful protesters who were rightly objecting to such inhuman and degrading treatment," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Hundreds of men and women gathered at the Ministry of Justice on December 14 to present a petition condemning flogging and calling for reform of public order laws and mechanisms.
Although Sudan's constitution protects freedom of assembly, police and security officers violently dispersed the group, arrested more than 44 people, most of them women, and assaulted a BBC reporter. The protesters have been released, but many face charges of being a public nuisance and disturbing the peace.
Under Sudan's public order system, Sudanese women face arrest and punishment of up to 40 lashes if they violate Article 152 of the Criminal Act of 1991, which broadly prohibits "indecent and immoral acts." The public order police have interpreted the law to prohibit women and girls from wearing trousers and knee-length skirts.
Sudan's public order system garnered widespread international attention in July 2009, when Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese journalist with the United Nations, was arrested, along with 12 other women, for wearing trousers. She challenged her arrest in court and campaigned for the repeal of Article 152.
Most of the offenses prohibited under Sudan's rules relate to interactions between men and women, dancing, choice of dress, smoking, and other personal behavior that authorities deem improper. Although accurate statistics are not available, the system disproportionately affects women and girls. In 2008, public order police brought 43,000 public order charges against women in Khartoum state alone, according a police source.
"The public order rules in Sudan are overly vague and broad, and are used to control and punish women for innocuous behavior, such as dancing at private parties or wearing trousers," Peligal said. "The system is inherently discriminatory and violates constitutionally protected freedoms of personal expression."
The rules also target southern Sudanese residents, most of whom are not Muslims, for brewing alcohol, punishable by flogging. Southerners are punished for this offense even though the constitution protects non-Muslims from being adversely affected by Sharia law, which is a feature of northern Sudan's legal system.
The African Commission on Human and People's Rights has declared that flogging violates Article 5 of the African Charter of Human and People's Rights, which prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment."
Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to uphold international and African standards, repeal the repressive morality laws, and end the practice of lashing. It also called on the government to refrain from further arrests of peaceful protesters, and to drop all charges against the activists arrested on December 14.
"By penalizing women's public expression, Sudanese authorities effectively diminish women's social, economic, and political participation, and infringe on their basic rights," Peligal said.