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Human Rights Developments

    The year 1990 was tragic for human rights in Sudan. The prior year had fostered a mixture of hopes and fears, with the first half of the year yielding progress toward peace in the government's seven-year-old civil war in the south against the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the mounting of a relief operation (Operation Lifeline) in famine-stricken areas, and extensive efforts to protect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms by such organizations as the Bar Association, the Doctors' Union and the Journalists' Union.

    This period of relative optimism ended with a coup d'etat on June 30, 1989, in which the parliamentary government was overthrown by Lt. Gen. Omer al-Bashir, who became head of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). After an early period of uncertainty, the true colors of the new government became clear. Immediately after the coup, several hundred politicians, trade unionists, lawyers, journalists and businessmen were detained, and all nonreligious organizations were dissolved. In November and December 1989, the government renewed its war effort, suspended Operation Lifeline, passed the "Popular Defense Act" to legitimize militia forces (which were responsible for gross violations of human rights), and stepped up its assault on the trade-union movement, which was engaged in nonviolent protests against the government, especially its dissolution of trade unions. One prominent unionist, Dr. Mamoun Hussein, was sentenced to death.

    The year 1990 dawned in the midst of a crackdown of unprecedented proportions. Several hundred trade-union activists were arrested in December 1989 and January 1990, including the leaders of Sudan's professional associations. Many were taken to unofficial detention centers, known as "ghost houses," and subjected to torture. For a few, the aim of the mistreatment was to obtain information; for the majority, it appears to have been simply to intimidate. Detainees were confined for long periods in dark, cold and wet closets, denied adequate food and medical attention, beaten and lashed, given electric shocks, doused with icy water, subjected to mock executions, prevented from praying and denied visits from families and lawyers. After some weeks of this treatment, most were transferred to regular prisons, in which torture was not practiced, but detainees were allowed only infrequent visits and denied medical attention. Seventy political detainees were transferred to Shalla Prison in Darfur, where conditions are very poor. Few detainees have been charged.

    Detainees have occasionally been released, and Dr. Mamoun was reprieved. However, there have been continual rounds of new arrests, and torture continues. In April, a young doctor, Ali Fadl, died under torture. Two businessmen have been hanged after being convicted of currency offenses.

    After coup attempts in March, April and September 1990, many army officers were arrested. In April, twenty-eight senior officers were summarily tried and executed. Ten executions followed the September coup attempt.

    Government policy includes strict censorship. Only government-controlled newspapers are permitted to publish, and in August, a journalist was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being convicted by a military tribunal of producing seditious literature.

    The government has violated international labor law by dissolving all trade unions, confiscating their assets and replacing them with government-appointed "steering committees." Trade unionists involved in strikes have been accused of "waging war against the state" (a crime that carries the death penalty) and many have been imprisoned.

    While the government has made no clear statement on the issue, the imposition of a version of Islamic Law is certainly one of its central aims. The version proposed for Sudan discriminates against non-Muslims and women, includes crimes such as apostasy (which many devout Muslims find alarming), and mandates cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments such as amputation and lashing. Justice is currently meted out in special "Revolutionary Security Courts," staffed by active-duty military officers, in which no defense counsel is allowed, rules for admitting evidence are arbitrary, and rights of appeal are limited. The Bar Association has been dissolved and many prominent lawyers have been detained or placed under restrictive orders.

    In late December 1989, members of an Arab militia armed by the previous government and legitimized by the Popular Defense Act committed a massacre at el Jebelein. About 1000 members of the (non-Muslim, southern) Shilluk tribe, including women and children, were burned or shot to death. The government response to this atrocity has been to deny any measure of responsibility for what it described as "tribal fighting." An official inquiry was launched, but its findings, if any, have not been made public.

    Killings by militia have also continued in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kordofan and in Darfur, where local conflicts were exacerbated by repeated invasions by the Chadian army to fight rebel Chadian forces stationed in the region and supported by Libya. In early December 1990, these forces overthrew the Chadian government of Hissan Habré.

    January and February 1990 witnessed an escalation of the war in the south, especially around Juba, the southern regional capital, home to about 200,000 civilians. There were reports of atrocities by both sides, including indiscriminate shelling of Juba by the SPLA. The SPLA also prevented all relief flights from reaching the town for several weeks.

    In March, an agreement was signed launching Operation Lifeline II, to provide humanitarian relief to civilians on all sides of the conflict. While the relief program succeeded in delivering most of the aid promised, humanitarian organizations met numerous obstacles mounted by both sides. The SPLA refused to allow trains and barges to move for many months, and when it finally relented, pro-government militias then prevented the trains from traveling. In June and repeatedly in September, government planes bombed relief centers in the south.

    Government food policy in the north has been negligent and irresponsible. Through a set of misguided policies, including the export of the entire national grain reserve, the government succeeded in turning a food shortage into a severe famine, which was intensifying at the end of 1990. The purpose of the sale appears to have been to acquire hard currency for the purchase of weapons needed to pursue the war. Abuses such as the burning of shantytowns and the forced removal of residents have served to exacerbate the suffering of underprivileged groups. The government has refused to recognize the famine or to appeal for significant amounts of assistance. It has also systematically restricted the work of humanitarian organizations, except those associated with Muslim fundamentalism. Many tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens, mainly children, will die on account of this famine.

    Food shortages led to civil unrest in several towns, including a strike by railway workers in Atbara in November, to which the government responded with harsh measures, including lethal force against protesters.

US Policy

    During 1990, the Bush administration became increasingly disenchanted with the Sudanese government, and began to show a corresponding readiness to criticize its abuses. This criticism became especially vociferous after al-Bashir declared his support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This changing attitude follows 15 years in which successive US administrations have been extremely reluctant to criticize the Sudanese human rights record. For example, while the new US ambassador, James Cheek, strongly protested the death sentence of Dr. Mamoun in December 1989, the US said nothing in response to the massacre at el Jebelein the same month.

    This policy of rare public comment in the face of Sudanese abuses continued through the first half of 1990. In February, USAID began withdrawing all nonemergency assistance to Sudan, but that move was required by US laws mandating an end to most US aid when an elected government is overthrown in a coup d'etat, as well as when a government is in arrears on its international debt. In March, the US government played a prominent role in pushing for the establishment of Operation Lifeline II, but declined to criticize the government's human rights record at the time, apparently on the grounds that such criticism might endanger the agreement for the relief operation. Human Rights Watch holds that, however laudable a humanitarian-relief effort, fear of jeopardizing its existence -- in effect, giving in to perceived or actual government blackmail -- is no grounds for remaining silent about serious human rights violations.

    On April 26, following the first round of executions of army officers, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was questioned by a journalist about whether there had actually been a coup attempt or people had simply been "rounded up and shot." His response, indicative of the US reluctance at the time to criticize Sudan on human rights grounds, was: "I think that's something for a good reporter to find out."

    Following the al-Bashir government's declared support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration began criticizing Sudan's human rights record publicly. In September, when the government bombed relief centers in the south and impounded food in the north, the administration publicly condemned the bombing, delayed a shipment of concessionary-sale wheat destined for Sudan, and diverted funds consigned for relief in government-held areas to help finance UNICEF operations in rebel-held areas. These actions had the immediate effect of forcing changes in Sudanese government policy. Contemplating Sudan's enormous needs for relief in the face of nationwide famine, the Bush administration also attached strict conditions to the delivery of such relief to ensure that it was not used for political purposes, including requirements that it reach the needy and that humanitarian organizations not be obstructed in carrying out their work.

    Similarly, the administration delivered strong criticism of Sudanese government abuses in testimony before Congress in October and November. For example, on November 27, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen reported:

The human rights situation has not improved in any significant way. Sudanese citizens are still subject to detention without charge by the security forces, and we estimate there are currently two to three hundred political prisoners. Some prisoners are occasionally released, but new ones replace them. Perhaps the only hopeful sign is that physical and psychological abuse of detainees has decresed. Reports of torture -- common earlier in the year -- are now rare. But many detainees are still held in substandard conditions in isolated areas and do not receive proper medical care.

We have told the government of Sudan numerous times that the human rights situation there is unacceptable and must be improved. In particular, we have said that all detainees should be either charged or released, that they should be treated humanely, and that if charged they should receive prompt and fair judicial process.

Africa Watch would have wished that such outspoken criticism might have been delivered throughout the year.

The Work of Africa Watch

    In March, Africa Watch published a report entitled Denying "The Honor of Living" -- Sudan: A Human Rights Disaster. The report addressed not only the actions of the current government in suppressing dissent and dismantling the institutions of civil society, but also the war policies of previous governments and abuses by the SPLA. There were also chapters on the creation of famine in southern Sudan and the resurgence of slavery.

    Africa Watch has also published 14 newsletters on Sudan, six in 1990. These have covered:

o The political detention of lawyers, academics, doctors, trade unionists, journalists, writers and poets.

o The massacre at el Jebelein.

o The government's attempts to reduce the status of women in Sudan, under the banner of Islamic propriety, by restricting their access to employment and their right to travel.

o The civil conflict in Darfur.

o The summary trial and execution of army officers, and the death under torture of Dr. Ali Fadl.

o Conditions in Shalla prison.

o Government censorship and control of information, and actions against journalists and academics.

o Government actions that have produced nationwide famine and crippled the mechanisms for responding to the acute humanitarian need.

o Torture in detention facilities, and the denial of medical care in prisons.

o The case of Mahjoub Sherif, "the People's Poet," who is imprisoned without trial.

    Twice in 1990, Africa Watch testified before Congress on human rights in Sudan. On March 15, it testified before a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on African Affairs and the Select Committee on Hunger. On November 27, it testified on human rights and famine in Sudan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Africa.

    On June 1, Africa Watch presented a petition on violations of labor rights in Sudan to the United States Trade Representative (USTR). The petition detailed abuses of workers' rights under the Bashir government and sought to have Sudan removed from the list of countries which receive trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, as required by US law. On September 28 and 29, Africa Watch testified before the USTR on labor rights violations in Sudan. The decision of the USTR is expected by April 1, 1991.

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