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Demonstrators in Khartoum march to protest against the Sudanese government's subsidies cuts and austerity measures on January 16, 2018. © 2018 Sudan Tribune

(Nairobi) – Sudan’s security forces have arrested scores of people in connection with protests against austerity measures imposed under the January 2018 budget, four Sudanese and international organizations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Al Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and Human Development, and the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, said today. Sudanese authorities should immediately release or charge them and grant them full due process.

Anyone held incommunicado should be granted immediate access to their lawyers and family members, and all detainees should be released in the absence of valid legal charges consistent with international standards. Authorities also have an obligation to guarantee the physical and psychological wellbeing of all detainees, the groups said.

“Sudanese security forces are using violence to disperse demonstrators, and have arrested dozens of people, violating the right to freedom of assembly and expression,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. “The Government of Sudan must uphold the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly and initiate an impartial and independent investigation into the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.”

Demonstrations across Sudan began on January 6, set off by the announcement of Sudan’s 2018 budget and the lifting of subsidies and other measures, effectively tripling Sudan’s US dollar exchange rate and increasing the price of basic commodities.

On several occasions since then, Sudanese authorities have used excessive force to disperse demonstrators, including beating peaceful demonstrators with sticks and batons, and firing tear gas into crowds.

In addition to the crackdown on protests, authorities have detained hundreds of protesters. Human rights groups documented arrests of at least 79 people at demonstrations in the first three weeks of January. Most are being held by Sudan’s national security agency, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), without access to their families and lawyers.

Dozens of opposition party leaders were detained prior to demonstrations in Khartoum, presumably to prevent them from further mobilizing their supporters. On January 7 and 8, the authorities detained four leaders from the political opposition Sudanese Congress Party (SCP).

On January 15, a local security committee empowered to implement the current state of emergency in El Obeid, North Kordofan, ordered six months in detention under the emergency law for Osman Salih, a member of the Sudanese Communist Party, and Ali Abulgasim, a member of the National Umma Party. The authorities denied a request to allow the families to visit them.

The majority of arrests were carried out on January 16 and 17, during marches organized by the Sudanese Communist Party and the National Umma Party, with a number of political opposition parties also supporting the demonstrations and mobilizing their supporters. On January 17, NISS detained Mohamed Mukhtar al Khatib, secretary general of the Sudanese Communist Party, and Mohamed Aldoma, a National Umma Party deputy chairperson.

All NISS detainees are at risk of abuse. There have been credible reports that several detainees were beaten in detention, subjected to harsh conditions and verbally abused. The organizations sending the news release have documented trends of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by authorities in the past, raising serious concerns about the physical and psychological conditions for detainees.

Authorities have also cracked down on the media. At least three newspapers were confiscated by NISS multiple times between January 15 and 18 for publishing articles that were critical of the government’s response to the demonstrations. Security officials arrested at least 15 journalists.  Six journalists were arrested in Khartoum on January16 and 17, and released on January 21. There are credible reports that Amel Habani, a woman journalist and human rights activist, was subjected to ill-treatment amounting to torture during her arrest.

“Reporting on the demonstrations has been deemed a ’red-line’ issue by the Sudanese government,” said Albaqir Alafif Mukhtar, Executive Director of the Al Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE).  “Confiscating newspapers severely circumscribes the availability of information in the public sphere and hinders freedom of expression and access to information.”

All concerned actors should press the Sudanese government to halt its ongoing campaign of arbitrary arrest and detention, and excessive use of force to silence dissenting voices, the organizations said.

The government of Sudan has a long history of excessive use of force. In September 2013, government forces used live ammunition to break up peaceful protests, killing at least 170 protesters. The authorities also detained at least 800 protesters without charge during the crackdown in late September and early October 2013, and subjected many to ill-treatment in detention. There has been little or no accountability for the deaths, injuries, and other abuses by Sudanese authorities against protesters. A patchwork of legal immunities effectively shields government forces from criminal prosecution and accountability.

“Sudan should immediately put an end to persistent human rights violations by its police and security services, reform laws that give them broad powers of arrests and detention, and repeal immunity that protects officials from prosecution,” said Jehanne Henry, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities also need to guarantee all detainees access to medical assistance required to ensure their physical and psychological well-being.”

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