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Some detained politicians and journalists in the Kober national prison, just before their release on February 18, 2018 ©2018 Reuters

(Nairobi) – Dozens of prominent activists remain in detention in Sudan, despite the release of more than 50 people on February 18 and 19, 2018.

Many of those still held are in unknown locations and without access to lawyer or family visits in conditions that may constitute enforced disappearances and put them at risk of abuse. Sudan should urgently release all detainees, or promptly charge them with a recognizable crime in procedures that uphold due process and ensure that they are allowed family visits and medical care.

“Sudan’s tactic of silencing dissent through mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and other rights violations needs to stop,” said Jehanne Henry, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The world should know that, despite Sudan’s release of some protesters as the cameras rolled, dozens of activists remain hidden behind bars in limbo without access to their families, lawyers, or due process.”

Since early January, Sudan’s government has violently suppressed peaceful protests against austerity measures and has repeatedly confiscated newspapers that have covered the protests. Sudanese rights groups estimated that 131 people were detained between January 13 and 20 alone, many during opposition party-organized protests in Khartoum and Omdurman on January 16 and 17. National security officials continue to arrest people at their homes or offices, or at meetings. They arrested at least three communist party members at their homes on February 18 and 19. The rights groups estimate that at least 90 people are still being held.

On February 18, the government announced it had released 80 detainees, but Sudanese groups monitoring the releases told Human Rights Watch they counted approximately 50. Most were released from Kober prison, Khartoum’s main prison, and from a national security prison in Khartoum in an event that drew considerable news coverage. The released detainees included more than a dozen female activists who were held at the Omdurman women’s prison for over a month.

But Sudan’s head of the National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS), Salah Gosh, told Sudanese media the other detainees would only be released if the opposition parties promised to stop organizing protests – a move that Sudanese groups denounced as political bargaining. Such efforts to shut down demonstrations are clearly incompatible with Sudanese and international protections on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said

Sudanese rights groups monitoring detainee releases told Human Rights Watch they estimate at least 90 people are still detained. The detainees include rights activist Salih Mahmoud, vice chair of the Darfur Bar Association. He is the recipient of many human rights awards, including from Human Rights Watch and the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov prize.

National security officials arrested him at his office on February 1 and are holding him incommunicado in conditions that constitute an enforced disappearance. The authorities have refused to provide information on Mahmoud’s whereabouts or situation and have denied requests by his family to tell them where he is and to allow them to visit him. Such cases amount to an enforced disappearance under international law.

Authorities are also refusing to provide information on the whereabouts or fate of activists including Amjed Farid, who was arrested by security agents on January 18 near his house; Mohamed Alhafiz Mahmoud a prominent human rights lawyer, arrested on February 1 in the Almanshya area; Abdalghani Karamallah, a writer and activist, Kamal Karar, a journalist and Communist Party leader, and Omer Ushari, all arrested on January 16 in Khartoum; and Osman Hassan Salih, a lawyer arrested in El Obeid, North Kordofan, on January 11.

Political leaders who remain in detention include Omar Yousif Eldigair, Elmahi Suliman, and Ezzeldin Haroun “Herika,” of the Sudanese Congress Party; Mohamed al-Khateeb, the secretary general of the Communist Party; and Dr. Hayder Elsafi of the Republic Party. Most are believed to be in Kober prison or in NISS facilities in Khartoum, but authorities have refused to tell family members where they are being held. At least five people – including an economist, Dr. Sidiq Kaballo, and an engineer, Mohieldeen Aljalad, of the Communist Party, and Yousif Alkoda, of the Alwasat Party – were transferred to Darfur and being held in prisons there.

Many of the detainees are elderly or suffer medical ailments. Released detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had been subjected to long interrogations and denied medications. Amal Habani, a journalist, was hospitalized after security officials beat her during her arrest. All detainees in custody of NISS are at risk of ill-treatment. The security agency is known for ill-treatment and torture of detainees, and, under Sudanese law, has wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention for up to four and a half months without judicial review.

On February 12 al-Bashir fired the head of national security, Mohammed Atta, and replaced him with Salah Gosh, the former head of NISS and prominent member of ruling National Congress Party who oversaw operations in Darfur. Al-Bashir had dismissed him in 2011 on suspicion of plotting a coup. Gosh oversaw many abuses, including arbitrary detention and torture of many opposition figures and activists including three human rights activists who were questioned about their links to the International Criminal Court. The Court has opened cases against several Sudanese officials including al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.

Sudan’s economy deteriorated following South Sudan’s independence in 2011 and in response, the government has imposed austerity measures that included devaluing the currency and lifting subsidies on wheat earlier this year, driving up the price of bread. Sudanese rights groups have long criticized the government for corruption and economic mismanagement, and serious abuses committed in the conflicts in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

“Instead of silencing critics, Sudan should engage with them to find solutions for these fundamental and persistent problems in its governance,” Henry said. “The route of repression will only breed more abuses and destruction of the rule of law.”

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