(Nairobi) – Sudanese authorities should investigate reported abuses, including sexual abuse, of female Darfuri students during a government raid on an all-female dormitory. The authorities should release or charge all those remaining in detention.

On October 5 and 6, 2014, government security forces forcibly evicted about 70 female students from the Zahra dormitory complex in Khartoum, beating and arresting many students. The police verbally and physically abused students, those who have been released told Human Rights Watch. Students who were arrested on both days were taken to the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) offices, where officers beat and interrogated them about their political affiliations before transferring them to the Omdurman prison for women.

“Sudanese security forces apparently think they can intimidate Darfuri students by beating them up and throwing them out of their dorms,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “There is no justification for treating students that way.”

Students caught up in the raid told Human Rights Watch the security forces groped them, taunted them, and threatened to assault them sexually. A women’s rights group, No to Women’s Oppression, reported that security officials raiding the dorms forced some women to undress in the dorms, photographed them, and threatened to use the photos against them.

The eviction and arrests occurred in the context of growing tensions between Darfuri students and university administrators over a range of issues. Sudanese security forces have repeatedly cracked down violently on Darfuri students protesting government policies, including attacks on civilians in Darfur and the death of a student protester last March.

In late September, authorities ordered the students to vacate the complex for maintenance, but many – particularly those from Darfur – protested, saying they had nowhere else to go. The operation began on October 5, during the Eid al Adha holidays. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a group of plainclothes security officials surrounded the dormitory and arrested at least 20 students outside the dorms, sometimes dragging them into cars.  

The next day, a large mixed group of uniformed and plainclothes security forces, together with student welfare administrators and pro-government students wielding sticks, raided the dorms, breaking down doors, beating students, arresting at least 11 more, and forcing others to flee, witnesses said.

“When I was in the room collecting my things six policemen came into the room and beat me with batons on my chest and on my arms and back,” one student said. “I screamed and I ran out and left my things among it precious things like money.” 

Another student, Hawa Suliman, was so badly beaten during her arrest that she required medical treatment, witnesses who saw her later in detention told Human Rights Watch.

Following their arrest at the dormitory on both days, many detainees were taken to the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) offices, where officers beat and interrogated them about their political affiliations before transferring them to the Omdurman prison for women.

“There were around 20 security men beating us nonstop, some with batons, others with their legs, and others with their hands,” a student arrested on October 6 told Human Rights Watch. “They were beating all of us every place in our body.”

Another student recalled: “They asked me about individuals and they said that I am a leader, and I work in politics with the Sudanese Congress party […] they told me that they will be following me, and that I must work with them and give them information […] and that I must be in contact with them within the next week or they will arrest me again and this time will be different.”

The total number of students detained, and their date of detention, is not clear. Sudanese activists monitoring the situation believe several were released within days, but that 15 are still detained in the Omdurman women’s prison, held without charge and without access to lawyers or family visits. In addition, the whereabouts of at least 20 students are unknown.

Authorities should make known the whereabouts of all detained students and release or charge them immediately, said Human Rights Watch. The unacknowledged detention of individuals or the concealment of the whereabouts or fate of those detained by state agents constitutes an enforced disappearance, which are absolutely prohibited under international law.

Sudanese authorities should put an end to these violent and repressive tactics, which violate both Sudanese and international law, Human Rights Watch said. They should immediately investigate all reported abuses against the students and hold those responsible to account.

“Students who have been released described horrific treatment at the hands of the security forces,” Bekele said. “The violence against these young women during the eviction only increases the fears for those who have not been able to contact their families or lawyers.”