Last week, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir released 193 Darfuri rebel fighters from prison, some of whom had been there for nine years. He also waived the death penalty against 66 others.  Days earlier, a Khartoum court released three civil society activists after ten months in detention.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir speaks during a press conference after the oath of the prime minister and first vice president Bakri Hassan Saleh at the palace in Khartoum, Sudan March 2, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

These developments, lauded by onlookers, burnish Sudan’s image at a time when al-Bashir – wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged atrocities in Darfur – has been improving diplomatic alliances with the Gulf, Europe, and the US. In January, the US eased economic sanctions against Sudan, and the EU has earmarked major funds to Sudan for migration control.

But these prisoner releases are a standard piece in al-Bashir’s political playbook and do not signal real change to Sudan’s abysmal rights record. A deeper look shows that Sudan’s sprawling National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) detains activists for extended periods, often accusing them of espionage and other crimes that are punishable by death to intimidate and silence them. NISS has also targeted female activists with sexual violence and reputation smearing.

Human rights defender Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam has been in prison since December 7. He has yet to be charged. He went on hunger strike twice to protest the lack of charges. His driver and several associates, including Darfuri activist Hafiz Idris, were also detained. Idris, who hails from a sprawling displaced person’s camp in South Darfur, also remains in detention without charge, and credible sources report he was badly beaten.

Other, lesser-known activists are also locked up – not just in official prisons, but in unmarked buildings, offices, and private houses – today’s version of the eponymous 1990s “ghost houses” where torture and ill-treatment were commonplace. A former detainee, a member of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party, who was held for 50 days after being picked up during the November 2016 crackdown on “civil disobedience”, was so badly beaten by security agents that he needed surgery. He told me that he saw other detainees who were beaten and even electrocuted in custody.

The reason for these violent, repressive tactics has always been clear to those detained. One opposition leader, a father of two who was held for 55 days in last November’s crackdown, explained to me, “It is to kill our will for change.” Sudan has not succeeded in this, judging by the proliferation of protest movements. Sadly, the government is still trying.