(Nairobi, November 18, 2019) – Fatal attacks on protesters in Sudan in June were planned and could amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Sudan’s transitional authorities should commit to genuine accountability for unlawful violence against protesters since December, in which hundreds were killed.
The 59-page report “‘They Were Shouting ‘Kill Them’’: Sudan’s Violent Crackdown on Protesters in Khartoum” documents Sudanese security forces’ attacks on the protesters’ sit-in camp in Khartoum on June 3, 2019 and in days following in other neighborhoods of the capital and neighboring Bahri and Omdurman. Human Rights Watch also documented attacks on protesters leading up to the June 3 crackdown and a subsequent attack on protesters on June 30 in Omdurman.
“Sudan’s new government needs to show it is serious about holding those responsible for the lethal attacks on protesters to account after decades of violent repression and atrocities against civilians,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should start by pursuing justice for the brutal attacks on protesters since last December, ensuring that all investigations are independent and transparent, and conform with international standards.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 60 people, including victims of a range of crimes such as sexual violence and witnesses to the abuses. Human Rights Watch conducted research in Sudan and remotely by phone between June 29 and August 11, and also analyzed photographs, videos, and social media posts.
Just before dawn on June 3, the last day of Ramadan, large numbers of security forces led by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) deployed near the sit-in area and opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing many instantly. The forces raped, stabbed, and beat protesters, and humiliated many, cutting their hair, forcing them to crawl in sewer water, urinating on them, and insulting them. The forces also burned and looted tents and other property in the area. Human Rights Watch has documented brutal attacks on civilians by the RSF in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile since 2013.
Credible sources estimate that at least 120 people were killed on June 3 and in following days. Hundreds were injured and dozens more are missing. Witnesses said they saw security forces throwing bodies into the Nile. At least two were retrieved from the river with bricks tied to their bodies and gunshot wounds to their heads and torsos.
Countrywide protests started outside Khartoum in mid-December 2018. Triggered by price increases, these quickly evolved into protests against Sudan’s president of 30 years, Omar al-Bashir, and his administration. The protests culminated in a sit-in near the army headquarters in April that resulted in al-Bashir’s ouster on April 11. A transitional military council took power, led by General Abel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, General Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, the commander of the RSF.
Both are members of the current transitional government’s “sovereign council,” sworn in in August following a power sharing deal between military and civilian groups.
After the military council takeover, the protesters maintained the sit-in, calling for the military to hand power to civilian leaders. As tensions rose, the military council deployed the RSF to disperse protests. The forces repeatedly used excessive force including live ammunition, killing protesters in April and May. The most violent crackdown was on June 3 and the following days.
The European Union and the Troika governments – the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway – condemned the attack, saying the military council ordered it. United Nations experts urged the UN Human Rights Council to set an independent investigation into violations against protesters since the start of the year. The African Union called for an independent investigation and on June 6 suspended Sudan, urging its leaders to transfer power to civilian rule.
The government’s response was to initially deny the attacks. The military council spokesman said the operation was only to clear an area adjacent to the sit-in where authorities said illegal activities were taking place. Later, the spokesman admitted the operation to disperse the sit-in was planned and apologized for “mistakes.”
Authorities also rejected opposition calls for an international investigation. On June 3, the then-attorney general formed an investigation committee, which later put the death toll at 87, a finding the opposition rejected. The committee recommended detaining eight officers responsible for attacking the sit-in and charging them with crimes against humanity and other crimes.
Negotiations resumed in July, and on August 17, military and opposition leaders agreed on a transitional government headed by a “sovereign council” of military and civilian members. The council’s military members will lead for the first 21 months, followed by civilian members. The council members and Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, were sworn in on August 21.
As provided in the agreement, Hamdok formed a new committee on September 21 to investigate the June 3 violence. Victims’ groups have raised concerns about the committee’s lack of independence, with members including officials from the Interior and Defense Ministries, both of which oversee the armed forces. The committee does not include women or experts on sexual violence.
Since December 2018, security forces cracked down violently on protests numerous times, using excessive, lethal force to disperse protestors. Security forces violently arrested and rounded up thousands and detained hundreds without charge, who also suffered from ill-treatment and harsh conditions. Monitors on the ground estimated that more than 100 people were killed between December and al-Bashir’s ouster on April 11. No one has been held responsible for the abuses during this period.
The transitional government should revise the investigation committee or replace it with one mandated to investigate and collect evidence for all crimes since December, with the authority to refer cases for prosecution based on international standards, Human Rights Watch said. The investigation should not hesitate to identify all those it concludes are responsible, including at the highest levels of government, such as Hemedti and other military leaders who are sovereign council members, and take steps to bring anyone identified to justice.
The government should swiftly enact legal reforms to bring national laws in line with international standards and ratify key human rights treaties including the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It should form the commissions envisioned in the August agreement, particularly those related to law reform, human rights, and transitional justice.
The government should also hand over Omar al-Bashir and four other men with arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed against civilians in Darfur.
“Sudan’s leaders should immediately follow up the important step of establishing a committee to investigate the crimes against protesters to ensure it meets international standards of fairness and independence,” Henry said. “To this end, they should urgently request expertise from Sudanese, regional, and international bodies, including from experts in investigating sexual violence and serious crimes.”