People chant slogans against the government's deadly crackdown on protesters during a demonstration in north Khartoum on October 4.

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should call on Sudan to account immediately for the death or injury of hundreds of largely peaceful protesters at the hands of government security forces in September 2013. Security forces opened fire on protesters in a wave of protests that began on September 23, 2013, following a speech by President Omar al-Bashir announcing an end to fuel subsidies.

The UN Human Rights Council, which will be holding a debate on Sudan on September 23, 2014, in Geneva, is expected to adopt a resolution on the situation in the country later this week. The UN body should condemn the killing of protesters and other abuses in Sudan, and press the government to support an independent, public investigation into the 2013 violence against protesters, with a view to prosecuting those responsible. If Sudan continues to delay on the investigation, the Human Rights Council should encourage an international body such as the African Union to step in.

“Government forces are implicated in a shocking number of deaths and injuries, and here it is a year later with the victims still waiting for justice,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN should make clear to Sudan that unless it acts immediately to bring justice for the 2013 killings, regional or international investigators need to take over the job.” 

In research earlier in 2014, Human Rights Watch found evidence that security forces shot dead more than 170 people, including children, and wounded, arrested, and detained hundreds more. Authorities held dozens of protesters, political activists, and journalists for long periods without charge or access to lawyers or family visits. Security officials tortured some detainees or otherwise subjected them to ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch found.

Authorities have repeatedly contested the death toll and played down the government’s role in the violence. Promises to carry out an independent investigation and make the results public have apparently not been kept. A report by the office of the chief prosecutor of Khartoum state, sent in June to the UN independent expert on human rights in Sudan, Mashood Baderin, stated that 85 people had been killed, but that the shooters could not be identified for lack of evidence.

In a report released on September 4, Baderin concluded that the government report “does not provide evidence of a thorough and independent investigation,” and said that in view of “the high number of lives lost during the demonstrations and the need for accountability, it is both morally and legally imperative that there should be an independent judicial enquiry in the killings and other human rights violations that occurred during the September 2013 demonstrations.”

The 2013 protests, which continued into October, were largely peaceful, though in the first few days, groups of youths in some locations damaged property, including police or other government buildings, vehicles, and public transport and gasoline stations. The government responded to the protests with excessive and lethal force, using tear gas, live ammunition, and batons. Authorities also took deliberate measures to suppress independent reporting about the protests, censoring media and arresting and detaining journalists, creating a media blackout.

In the weeks following the protests, authorities at the national and state level set up three committees to investigate the violence. However, these appear to have focused on the property damage rather than abuses against protesters. Hundreds of people, mostly youth, have been tried for the damage in summary trials, and sentenced to fines or detention. Dozens of others, including juveniles, have been held for long periods awaiting trial. No report from the committees has been made public or has apparently resulted in prosecutions of members of the security forces for killings, injuries, or other abuses during the protests.

Instead, witnesses told Human Rights Watch, authorities blocked families from pursuing justice on behalf of their loved ones. Hospital officials refused to provide medical evidence, and police and prosecutors refused to open investigations.

Of 84 complaints filed by family members, only one case reached the court. The high-profile case was brought against a plain-clothes police officer by the family of 29-year-old Sarah Abdelbagi, who was shot dead while going to the funeral of her 14-year-old cousin, who was also killed during the protests. But the court ruled in June 2014 that there was insufficient evidence to convict, and although the family appealed the decision, the accused has since disappeared and is rumored to have fled the country.

The protests occurred in a wider context of political repression and pervasive human rights abuses, as well as ongoing conflicts in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile states. Members of opposition parties, including the leaders of the National Umma Party and the Sudan Congress Party, have been detained for weeks or months during 2014 because of their outspoken opposition to government policies.

Sudan has for years made no progress on bringing to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses in Darfur. President al-Bashir is among four people who are fugitives from the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes in Darfur, and faces charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

“Given Sudan’s repeated failure to investigate, the Human Rights Council should recommend that an international body step in to investigate the killings of protesters last year,” Bekele said. “Hundreds of Sudanese families who lost loved ones or suffered abuse at the hands of the government should not be forgotten.”