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(Nairobi) – Sudan’s security forces have been implicated in killing dozens of protesters following demonstrations over the past week, Human Rights Watch said today. The security forces have detained numerous protesters and opposition party members.

“Repression is not the answer to Sudan’s political and economic problems,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sudan’s authorities need to rein in the security forces and make it clear that using excessive force is not allowed.”

The recent wave of protests started in Wad Madani on September 23, 2013, the day after President Omar al-Bashir announced an end to fuel and other subsidies, and spread to Khartoum, Omdurman, Port Sudan, El Obeid, and other towns. The resulting price hikes are the latest in a series of measures that have negatively affected living conditions across the country.

Many of the protests turned violent as protesters vandalized and set fire to gas stations and police stations, and threw stones at police and security forces. In response, the police and national security forces fired teargas, rubber bullets, and according to credible reports, live ammunition into the crowds. Sudan has also deployed military forces to contain protests in some locations.

While the situation remains fluid and information is difficult to confirm, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that more than 29 people had been killed as of the evening of September 25, 2013. Reports from Sudanese rights groups indicate the death toll exceeds 100, with many more injured, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify these numbers. Most of those killed were teenagers or in their early twenties.

Witnesses in Khartoum and Omdurman told Human Rights Watch that they saw police and national security forces fire shots at protesters. Sudanese activists have alleged that pro-government militia are also responsible for some killings. Sudanese officials have denied unlawful killings.

The government has sought to suppress information about the events. On September 19, officials from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) confiscated editions of three national newspapers in Khartoum. Authorities have also arrested journalists in Wad Madani covering the protests there. On September 25, Internet access across the country was shut down for several hours, a move Sudanese activists believe the government orchestrated.

The wave of protests comes on the heels of a harsh crackdown on September 19 on protesters in Nyala, South Darfur. The sharp rise in insecurity and large presence of government-backed militia in Nyala had provoked a public outcry against the central government.

Thousands of Nyala residents gathered to protest the killing by militiamen on September 18 of Ismail Ibrahim Wadi, a prominent Zaghawa businessman. Wadi was the seventh person killed this year by militia members, according to media reports.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some protesters set fire to several cars, including the governor’s, and attempted to force their way into government buildings. Police shot teargas and live ammunition. Three people were killed on the spot including two boys aged 11 and 12, and scores more were injured. As of September 24, seven protesters had died from the gunshot wounds.

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. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The principles also provide that governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.

“Lethal force is only permitted where strictly necessary to protect life,” Bekele said. “Authorities should make sure that police and security forces know the legal limits on the use of force and hold accountable any who exceed those limits.”

Darfur’s security forces are known for using excessive force to disperse protests. In Nyala in July 2012, government forces killed at least 12 students protesting transportation price increases, most of them teenagers.

Sudan’s second vice president Al-Haj Adam Yousif vowed to bring to justice those responsible for killing Wadi and for destroying government property, and the governor has set up an investigation committee. But authorities have been silent on the need for justice for the killing of protesters, instead accusing Darfuri rebel groups of stoking the violence.

The Sudanese government’s investigation should be comprehensive and include all the reported killings and excessive use of force across the country, Human Rights Watch said.

In anticipation of and in response to the economic protests across Sudan, national security officers arrested a large number of political opposition party members and activists, some as early as September 18. Sources in Khartoum reported to Human Rights Watch that 21 opposition party members, including elderly men and women, remain in NISS custody.

Security forces have also arrested large numbers of protesters, according to opposition party officials, though complete information has yet to emerge about their fates. In some cases, the protesters were charged and tried immediately for public order crimes and sentenced to lashings. Many others remain in detention.

“Arresting opposition party members and protesters without a valid legal basis will only fuel dissent,” Bekele said. “Instead, authorities should protect the right of all Sudanese to express their political views, and release detainees unless they are promptly charged with recognizable crimes.”

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