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(New York) – Sudan security forces have arrested scores of protesters, opposition members, and journalists, beat people in detention, and used rubber bullets and even live ammunition to break up protests that began on June 16, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sudan should end the crackdown on peaceful protesters, release people who have been detained, and allow journalists to report freely on the events, Human Rights Watch said.

The protests began on June 16 at Khartoum University in response to government austerity measures and price increases. By June 22 the protests had spread to dozens of other locations in Khartoum, Omdurman, Madani, Sennar, Gedarif, Port Sudan, Hasahisa, and other towns across Sudan, with protesters calling for the end of the current government. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, protesters, and former detainees in Khartoum and Omdurman and is in contact with other groups monitoring the situation.

“Sudan is using these protests as an excuse to use violence and intimidation to silence dissenters,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should call off their security forces and vigilantes, end the violence immediately, and respect the right of the people to protest peacefully.”

In a heated speech on June 24, President Omar al-Bashir downplayed the significance of the protests, calling them foreign-backed, and threatened to respond to protesters “with real jihadists” instead of as a “responsible government.” The day before, Sudan’s police chief vowed to quell the protests “forcefully and immediately” according to law.

Sudanese police and security forces have responded to the protests, as they did to student protests in December 2011 and January 2012, with excessive force, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. They described beatings and arrests and attacks on peaceful protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition.

On the night of June 20, for example, police and security forces beat protesters gathered outside the Umma political party headquarters in Omdurman and shot a rubber bullet into the crowd, hitting a protester. “I couldn’t feel my leg,” recalled the injured protester. “Two of my friends lifted me into an abandoned school building. I was bleeding a lot and we used my shirt to stop the bleeding.”

Groups of pro-government students wielding sticks and iron bars apparently cooperated with the security forces to beat and arrest demonstrators. A student from Sudan University told Human Rights Watch that on June 19 he and his friend were arrested by a large group of pro-government students who had radios. “They took us to Nile Street, where the security guys told them they will take us from there,” the student said. “That is when I knew they were working for the security.”

Once in national security custody, the students were blindfolded and beaten severely. “They were slapping us and insulting us, calling us slaves of foreigners and punching us and beat us with their gun butts,” said the student, whose injuries were so severe that he had to go to the hospital upon his release the following day.

On June 24, a pro-government group threw explosives in glass bottles, which one witness described as a “Molotov,” on protesters at Khartoum University, who in turn threw rocks at the group. The same day the main hospital in Khartoum treated more than 20 protesters who had serious injuries from beatings by riot police, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

“Sudanese authorities need to rein in their security forces immediately and protect protesters from vigilantes,” Bekele said. “The security forces may use force only according to law and as a last resort.”

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which embody international law on the use of force, state that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

Though the protests were sparked by economic woes, protesters are now calling for an end to the current government. Popular grievances against the government include opposition to Sudan’s wars in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile, where fighting between government and armed opposition broke out in 2011 and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The austerity measures announced earlier in June are to alleviate the country’s US$2.4 billion deficit. Since South Sudan became a separate country in July 2011, Sudan has experienced sharp inflation, a depreciating currency, and the loss of oil revenues. Its economic problems were exacerbated in January by the shutdown of South Sudanese oil production and closing of the border between Sudan and South Sudan amid deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Widespread Arrests, Detentions
Over the past 10 days police and national security officials have arrested scores of protesters on a daily basis, detaining many for hours or days and often subjecting them to interrogation, threats, and ill-treatment while in detention, people who had been detained told Human Rights Watch and other organizations monitoring the situation.

Many of those detained were forced to sign a promise to stop protesting before they were released. In one case security officials arrested a student at Sudan University, forced him into a car, shaved his eyebrows and hair, and beat him with wooden sticks before releasing him with a warning not to participate in protests. Two days later security officials re-arrested him with two other students and beat and shaved them all as punishment for their suspected support of the protests, with one official warning them, “If we catch you again protesting [...] we will cut other parts of your body.”

Throughout the week judicial authorities have sentenced large groups of protesters to lashings under public order provisions of Sudan’s criminal act for participating in the protests.

Security forces also arrested scores of opposition party members or their family members, known activists, and other perceived opponents at their homes and offices. On June 18, for example, police raided the headquarters of the New Democratic Movement and seized equipment and arrested several members, releasing most after a few hours.

On June 20, security forces arrested the president of the Sudanese Association for Rights and Freedoms from at home. And on June 22, security officials arrested members of the Sudanese Conference Party at their office. As of June 26, arrests of political opposition members were still being reported and many of those arrested were still in national security detention.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to Darfuri students who witnessed plain-clothes security officials arrest two Darfuri activists near their homes in separate locations in Omdurman, even though they had not participated in the protests.

Sudanese and international journalists were also arrested and detained while trying to report on the protests. On June 19, plain-clothes security agents arrested the Agence France-Press correspondent, Simon Martelli, and detained him for 14 hours in an office in northern Khartoum. Security officials arrested Salma al-Wardany, an Egyptian journalist for Bloomberg, and a Sudanese colleague on June 21, releasing them after five hours. On June 26, authorities ordered al-Wardany deported, alleging that she had links to activists.

Beginning on June 20, security officials summoned Nagla Sid Ahmed, a well-known citizen journalist and member of the youth group “Girifna” (“We are fed up”), to their office for interrogation for several days in a row, preventing her from covering the protests. Other Sudanese journalists have also been detained.

While many of those arrested were released after hours or days, Sudanese groups following the situation estimate that more than 100 people are still in detention, including known activists such as Ussamah Mohamed, who publicized his anti-government views on Al Jazeera, and Mohammed Hassan Alim Boshi, an outspoken opposition member who was also detained in December 2011 for three weeks in connection with anti-government protests.

All those detained by the National Security Service, the draconian security organ well-known for its wide powers of arrest and detention without judicial oversight, are at risk of beatings and other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arresting all suspected opponents to stifle dissent is abusive and illegal,” Bekele said. “Authorities need to charge or release these detainees immediately, allow people to voice their opinions peacefully, and let the media work freely.”

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