(New York) – Sudan’s Anti-Terrorism Special Courts in late July sentenced 30 alleged rebels to death in trials that fell far short of international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the government to abolish the hastily created special courts and instead prosecute all cases in the regular courts according to the 2005 National Interim Constitution.
The special court trials began on June 18, 2008 in Khartoum, Khartoum North and Omdurman. The chief justice hastily established the special courts on May 29 to try individuals accused of participating in the May 10 attack on the capital, Khartoum, by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group. The death sentences were handed down on July 29 and 31.
“The special courts set up by Sudan to try alleged rebels who attacked Khartoum are a charade,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The special courts don’t meet even minimal fair trial standards, and yet they have the power to sentence people to death.”
The special courts imposed limits on the defendants’ ability to make their case that in effect denied them the right to a fair trial. Defendants had only limited access to lawyers, some of whom withdrew from the court because the judge denied them access to their clients. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which the defendants were not allowed to see the evidence against them. Several defendants retracted their confession when giving evidence in court after allegedly confessing to the crimes under torture. The special courts did not apply the 1994 Evidence Act, relying instead on accomplice testimony and media reports, but refusing alibis for defendants and denying defendants the right to fully contest the evidence.
One of the defendant’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch: “If the normal evidence procedures were used in these trials, the prosecution would have no case.” And some relatives of the defendants were not allowed into the courtroom despite the trials supposedly being open.
On July 29 and 31, the special courts convicted and sentenced to death by hanging 30 men, under various articles of the 1991 Penal Code, the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act and the 1993 Weapons and Ammunition Ordinance (amended 1997). Under the Anti-Terrorism Special Courts procedures, defendants have only one week to lodge an appeal. The decision of the Court of Appeal is final.
A month earlier, on June 29, lawyers for the defendants filed an application with the Constitutional Court to suspend the ongoing trials until the Constitutional Court makes a decision on the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act and the special courts. On July 23, the Constitutional Court rejected the application without providing any grounds for its decision.
Some of the defendants’ lawyers have been subject to harassment by the authorities. On July 8, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) summoned Satie al-Hajj, a lawyer representing the defendants, and told him to cease representing them.
Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals remain in detention without charge, several of whom are feared to have “disappeared.” In a June 2008 report, “Crackdown in Khartoum: Mass Arrests, Torture, and Disappearances since the May 10 Attack,” Human Rights Watch documented the arrest and detention of more than 200 people by Sudanese security forces in the wake of the JEM attack on May 10. The fate and whereabouts of most detainees remain unknown.
Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese authorities to immediately release or charge those in detention with a cognizable offense, and to inform their families of their whereabouts.
“Right now, those detained are suffering one of two fates: held incommunicado, mistreated, possibly tortured, or sentenced to death in an unfair trial,” said Gagnon. “International law is clear – they must be charged and tried fairly, or released.”
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility. International human rights law, as codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, favors the abolition of capital punishment and provides restrictions on its use.