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Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (R) attends the opening session of the "Friends of Sudan" conference in the capital Khartoum on December 11, 2019. © ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP

(Nairobi) – Donors and foreign partners should urge Sudan to prioritize justice and legal and institutional reforms in Sudan, even as they focus on the country’s pressing economic concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 25, 2020, a group of governments and multilateral organizations, known as the Friends of Sudan, will hold a partnership conference in Berlin, Germany, to discuss economic support to the country.

“Almost a year into the transition in Sudan, we are seeing too little progress on justice and key reforms,” said Jehanne Henry, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sudan’s leaders and its international partners should use the upcoming conference to plan to forge ahead on several fronts simultaneously so that the transition resets the country’s governance and rights trajectory.”

The Friends of Sudan group, which includes the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, aims to support democratic transition and economic reforms set out in Sudan’s transitional constitution. While delivering urgent support to save Sudan’s floundering economy is critical, the conference is also an opportunity to engage with Sudan’s reform and justice goals in a holistic and constructive manner, Human Rights Watch said.

Ahead of the Berlin meeting, Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document on Sudan’s options to advance justice for serious international crimes. Human Rights Watch detailed the importance of justice for past crimes and the need for reform in Sudanese law and practice that hinder holding those responsible to account. It urges donors to discuss the expertise and assistance they may have available to support Sudan’s efforts to bring accountability for past crimes committed across the country and to press Sudanese authorities to directly engage with the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay to discuss specific steps toward progress on prosecution of the court’s Darfur cases.

Sudan’s president of 30 years, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in April 2019 after months of popular protests across Sudan, which government security forces dispersed violently, killing hundreds of people. A transitional military council took power, and during months of negotiations with civilian groups, its forces cracked down violently on protesters, killing more than 120 in Khartoum on June 3 and following days.

In August, following a power-sharing agreement between the military council and civilian groups, Sudanese leaders formed a transitional government headed by an 11-member sovereign council and a prime minister. The transitional government is to rule the country for three years, followed by elections. For the first 21 months, the military members of the sovereign council rule, followed by 18 months of civilian rule.

The current chair is Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. His deputy is Mohamed Hamdan Dago, “Hemedti,” commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Hemedti has been implicated in war crimes and possible crimes against humanity for attacks on civilians in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile and more recently for the June 3 attack on protesters in Khartoum.

Since the transitional government was sworn in, there has been little progress on accountability for the months of crackdowns on protesters. A national committee set up to investigate the June 3 violence, appointed in September, has yet to issue its final report. The authorities should ensure that the attorney general has political backing and sufficient resources and technical support to follow up on the June 3 committee’s work. The office should be able to investigate and prosecute up the chain of command those most responsible for planning and ordering the dispersal operation, Human Rights Watch said.

The attorney general’s office has indicated that it is also investigating other past crimes, including the killings of protesters; abuses by the former government since 1989; corruption-related crimes; specific human rights violations of the past; and crimes in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile. In peace talks between government and rebel groups from these areas, a member of the government’s negotiation team who is also on the Sovereign Council announced in February that the parties had agreed on justice mechanisms for Darfur crimes, and that the government would cooperate with the ICC’s investigation on Darfur.

On June 9, one ICC suspect, the Darfuri militia leader Ali Kosheib, surrendered to the ICC in the Central African Republic. This is a landmark development for victims of government-backed atrocities committed in Darfur. Other suspects, including al-Bashir, are detained in Khartoum.

In the question-and-answer document, Human Rights Watch recommends that Sudanese authorities begin discussions with the ICC on cooperation, including to bring suspects into ICC custody. Sudanese authorities should also convene a task force to develop a strategy for criminal accountability for the most serious past violations, and amend domestic law to foster credible prosecutions. Revisions should include incorporating command responsibility as a form of criminal liability, and lifting legal immunities protecting officials from prosecution.

Sudan’s constitutional charter calls for a raft of wide-ranging legal and institutional reforms that have not materialized. The authorities have not appointed the transitional legislative council or state governors, or formed critical commissions on human rights, transitional justice, judicial reform, and law reform. These delays are holding back organized reform efforts, further undermining the transition to civilian rule and other hoped-for changes, Human Rights Watch said.

A comprehensive plan for reforming the army, Rapid Support Forces (RSF), police, auxiliary forces, and the sprawling national intelligence and security agency, NISS (renamed the general intelligence services, GIS, but still operating) is also urgently needed for the transition to take hold, Human Rights Watch said. The reforms should include setting up accountability systems in the forces and putting them under civilian oversight. The authorities should also investigate alleged connections between the security forces and a network of state-owned companies, controlled by the military and security apparatus, that has been the subject of various reports. Some have allegedly funded the RSF even as they committed abuses against civilians.

“Just because reforms are ambitious and long-term does not mean they should be further delayed,” Henry said. “The authorities need to carry out their commitments to justice and reform with full support from partners to help this transition along. They should not squander this unique opportunity to make human rights and justice a reality for the Sudanese people.”

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