(Juba) - Sudanese authorities used excessive force during largely peaceful protests that began on January 30, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately release protesters detained by national security forces and investigate the reported killing of a student who took part, Human Rights Watch said.
Inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Sudanese students and their supporters gathered in Khartoum and other northern cities on January 30 and 31 to call for an end to National Congress Party rule and government-imposed price increases. Similar protests were reported on February 1, and activists called for the protests to continue.
"The Sudanese government should not use violence to cut off peaceful demonstrations and political expression," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The people of Sudan, like people everywhere, have a right to protest repression."
The government responded to the demonstrations by dispatching armed riot police and national security forces to the protest sites, including university premises. The security personnel used force to disperse the demonstrators and arrested more than 100 people, including nine journalists, during the first two days of protests. Many of the protesters, including two arrested journalists, were subjected to beatings and ill-treatment.
One student, Mohammed Abderahman, reportedly died from injuries inflicted by security forces on January 30, activists said. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the death, but called on the Sudanese government to investigate the allegations immediately.
The protesters on January 30 and 31, organized by youth and student movements using Facebook and other electronic media, rallied in public places and at university campuses in Khartoum, Omdurman, El Obeid, and other towns. Witnesses in Khartoum and Omdurman reported that armed riot police and national security personnel dispersed groups of protesters using pipes, sticks, and teargas, injuring several people and preventing some people from joining the protests. Some protesters threw rocks at riot police, but most were peaceful, witnesses said.
The majority of those arrested were released within hours, but more than 20 are still missing and believed to be held by national security forces. Among them is a southern student at the University of Khartoum, Louis Awil Weriak, who bore signs of ill-treatment, a fellow detainee who was released said. Human Rights Watch also received information that on February 2, national security staff arrested two staff members of the communist party newspaper, Al-Maidan. 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.
"Sudan's track record of using national security officials to target activists and political opponents and subject them to ill-treatment and torture raises serious concerns for the safety of detainees," Bekele said. "Authorities should charge or release all the protesters immediately."
International standards require authorities to bring charges promptly after an arrest. However Sudan's repressive National Security Act gives the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) broad powers of search, seizure, arrest, and prolonged detention of up to four and a half months without judicial review, in violation of international standards. Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure that any detention is properly recorded and that anyone detained has all due process protections, including access to counsel and medical care.
Human Rights Watch also urged the government to lift restrictions on the media immediately. Government security forces blocked international and Sudanese journalists who tried to cover the demonstrations. Authorities also went to the offices of two newspapers, Ajrass al Huriya and Al Sahafa, on January 31, and to Al-Maidan on February 1 to order them not to distribute the editions on those days.
"With the southern secession vote over, Sudan is entering a new chapter in its history," Bekele said. "Rather than violently repressing basic freedoms, the Khartoum government should uphold the rights enshrined in its own constitution, allow freedom of political expression, and let journalists freely report on events."
The demonstrations coincided with the announcement by officials in Juba on January 30 of the preliminary results of the Southern Sudanese independence referendum, in which over 99 percent of southerners voted to secede from northern Sudan. The referendum was called for by the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan's 22-year civil war.
The protests also occurred at the same time Sudanese government and rebel attacks on civilians in Darfur have dramatically increased. Despite commitments, the Sudanese government has yet to disarm militias or improve accountability for past and ongoing human rights violations in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for three people as part of its Darfur investigation, including President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.