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People continue protests demanding the restoration of civilian rule in Khartoum, Sudan on January 24, 2022.  © 2022 Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In Sudan, where prices for bread and fuel have skyrocketed following the military coup, people are once again taking to the streets. The global shortage of wheat triggered by the ongoing war in Ukraine, the world’s breadbasket, may be adding fuel to the fire. But it’s important to remember that their dissatisfaction has been brewing for years.

Five months ago, Sudan’s military carried out a coup, bringing an abrupt end to the country’s short-lived transition towards democracy, and empowering a repressive clique, many of whom were in power when the former strongman, Omar al-Bashir, was in charge. Sudanese from all walks of life have been rallying in resistance ever since.  

The military has used brute force to suppress a popular resistance to their coup, shooting at protesters with live bullets and tear gas canisters, and preemptively arresting individuals perceived as active within protest groups.

What we are seeing in Sudan isn’t the work of a few ‘bad’ apples but the actions of a well-managed apparatus bent on denying people’s basic rights, trying to break the will of the protest movement while also buying time to cement their power. 

Since the revolution, Sudanese protesters have been clear that without an end to impunity and reform of abusive forces, the path to democracy is blocked. Strategic regional and international engagement with Sudan needs to address both issues – impunity and reform - head on and not trade them off or delay resolving them indefinitely for political concessions or convenience.

Unfortunately to date, Sudan’s international and regional partners have floundered, rubber stamping power sharing deals that put justice and reform demands on the back burner.

It is time to shift tack. Concrete actions, including targeted sanctions on individuals identified on the basis of credible evidence as implicated in serious human rights abuses and war crimes, are needed. Their purpose is to change the behavior of security forces on the ground and curb the repression. If Sudan’s leaders see that the international community is willing to impose consequences for persistent abuses and repression, peaceful protesters should enjoy greater freedom to express themselves and organize.

Military leaders now in control in Khartoum have ordered operations against protestors that have killed 87 people, including 11 children and a woman, and injured thousands, hoping to undermine protesters’ resolve.  They’ve brutally beaten and assaulted protesters, including sexually, some of them women and children, and locked up hundreds. They’ve held many incommunicado. They’ve attempted to rein in independent media reporting, raiding at least two media offices and arresting and harassing journalists and media correspondents. The security forces have also targeted health care facilities and medical professionals- a backbone of the protest  movement, who worked tirelessly to treat injured protesters while also speaking out about abuses.

No one should underestimate the tenacity of the Sudanese putting their lives on the line for real change. But as a long-time activist, whose 16-year-old son was detained at a protest, beaten and humiliated in detention, told me: “They want to break our boys from joining the protests, and also want to send a signal to families to trigger fear for the fate of their children so they won’t allow them to protest.”

Lawyers and detainees’ families describe how the authorities deny knowing detainees’ whereabouts, and invoke the state of emergency imposed after the coup, as granting carte blanche to security forces for holding people unlawfully. Refusing to disclose the whereabouts of someone in custody can constitute an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law.

One lawyer told me:  “We are sent in a loop, which adds to our anguish. [All[ those in positions of authority, appear to be wanting to create plausible deniability of being involved in the arrests.”

The military junta has also tactically deployed forces and rotated various units in an apparent attempt to deflect responsibility. We have heard Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army leader, placing the blame on the police for crackdowns, even though military units have been involved.   

Police officials on their end denied use of excessive and lethal force despite overwhelming evidence of the opposite.  After his reinstatement as prime minister, in November 2021, Dr. Abdalla Hamdok sacked the then police chief and his deputy. This, however, did not stop security force crackdowns.

A prosecutor in Khartoum said that the presence of many forces creates a level of confusion that makes it harder for investigators to identify those responsible. “It’s intentional, no doubt,” the prosecutor commented. “Such large deployment of different forces can’t be a decision at the low levels of the command chain. It’s a decision that must be coming from high up.”

Sudan’s regional and international partners should roll out a coordinated response, including targeted sanctions, designed to rein in those leading the repression. Targeted sanctions should be carefully designed to have minimal negative humanitarian impact. They could include visa bans and assets freezes that will also help prevent individuals leading the repression thriving while they throttle Sudan’s frail economy and oversee a brutal machinery of oppression.

Clear benchmarks indicating when and how sanctions can be lifted should be linked to behavior change by the military and others and should be set out from the beginning. These benchmarks should lead to achieving the reforms sought by the protest movement.

The coup leaders should be given no further concessions that facilitate their efforts to undermine the future of a fairer, rights-respecting country that Sudanese continue to strive for.

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