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Sudanese celebrate after officials said the military had forced longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 11, 2019. © 2019 AP Images

(Nairobi) – Sudan’s ongoing internet shutdown is a gross violation of human rights and should be lifted immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Disruptions to access escalated over the past week and the country is now almost entirely cut off from the internet, after forces violently attacked and dispersed protesters.

The authorities should immediately restore access to the internet. It is vital for emergency communications, including information from health care providers, and to access other basic information in times of crisis.

“If the Transitional Military Council genuinely intends to restore peace and maintain good will with civilian opposition leaders, it should reverse this dangerous shutdown, which puts even more lives at risk,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “These shutdowns blatantly repress the rights of the people the military council claims it wants to have a dialogue with.”

The UN Human Rights Council has unequivocally condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law, and said that all countries should refrain from and cease such measures. Sit-ins and calls for peaceful civil disobedience do not justify the Transitional Military Council wholesale denial of internet access, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has previously called for independent monitoring of the situation in Sudan, including an investigation from the Human Rights Council and an African Union independent inquiry.

Activists began reporting mobile internet disruptions on June 3, 2019, when government forces carried out a bloody, large-scale attack on the sit-in in Khartoum, killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds more. The attack followed weeks of growing tensions as negotiations stalled between the military council and opposition groups over the formation of a civilian-led transitional government, following the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir on April 11.

The Sudanese Professionals’ Association, an activist group opposing military rule, called for a campaign of civil disobedience starting June 9, asking supporters to remain at home until the country’s governance was transferred to civilian authorities.

The military council has offered no compelling justification for denying internet access. On June 10, the authorities cut the remaining fixed line connections, effectively shutting down nearly all internet access. Netblocks, a nonprofit organization monitoring internet censorship, announced that Sudan now faces a “near-total restriction” on internet access in the country. The same day, Shamseddin Kabashy, spokesperson for the military council, confirmed on Al-Jazeera that the council had ordered the shutdown. “We stopped internet services for a limited period, at our discretion.” he said.

The shutdown has resulted in wide-ranging harm. The outage has prevented activists and residents from reporting critical information about the volatile situation in Sudan, where government forces led by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces – known for their abusive campaigns in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile – have reportedly continued to commit abuses following the June 3 attack.

Mohammed, a 29-year-old demonstrator in Khartoum, told Human Rights Watch: “We…struggle with verifying information. This whole situation now is creating isolated locations where we don’t really know what is happening and what kind of abuses are taking place there.”

The block on internet access has also caused serious safety concerns by denying access to information that could help people safely navigate roads during the current unrest. “It is dangerous now with all the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the streets and checkpoints to walk or drive around,” a 27-year-old man living in Khartoum said. “Without internet access, we can't be warned, as used to be the case, on what streets to avoid and what are the safest routes.”

The presence of security forces, including the RSF in Khartoum and at hospitals, has undermined or prevented access to medical care for those in need. Medical professionals said the lack of internet access has only made it more difficult for them to organize ways to provide care.

Governments that seek to repress peaceful political opposition have in many instances cut off internet access during times of political sensitivity and crisis. Before the current shutdowns, Sudan’s government had blocked access to social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the messaging service WhatsApp – intermittently between December 2018 and April 2019.

Such shutdowns violate multiple rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and information, and hinder others, including the right to free assembly. In their 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN experts and rapporteurs declared that, even in times of conflict, “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”

Under international law, Sudan has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to freely assemble and express political views, Human Rights Watch said.

David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has previously stated: “A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means… Access to information is crucial for the credibility of the ongoing electoral process. Shutdowns are damaging not only for people’s access to information, but also for their access to basic services.”

Members of the international community in contact with military council officials should stress the importance of fully restoring service immediately, given the clear violation of rights and the harm linked to the current shutdown. They should also press the council on the need to more broadly respect demonstrators’ rights to information, free expression, and free assembly.

“No one is going to believe that a government that has repeatedly blocked this crucial avenue of communication is otherwise dealing with protesters in a proportionate, rights-respecting manner,” Motaparthy said. “There is simply no legitimate justification for this overbroad measure that is designed to repress the exercise of fundamental rights.”

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