HBS: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation  Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which was signed in 2005, ended Africa’s longest-running  civil war and allowed for a referendum for South Sudan to decide whether or not to secede from Sudan. Civil society then had more space to operate  – especially with the international focus on Sudan. How has the relationship between civil society and the government developed?

Nuba Reports: Civil society groups were allowed to develop a strong presence in the  years  following the  agreement, especially in urban areas. Activist movements were  formed, such as the  pro-democracy pressure group Girifna  (meaning “fed up”) and  the women-led No to Women’s Oppression campaign. They held  events at neighbourhood social clubs  and  universities, distributed material through the media, and  inspired other groups to grow.

However, the  honeymoon is definitely over.  Since  March 2009, when the  International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the state has increasingly cracked down on civil society, accusing it of supporting and  collaborating with  the  court. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 took international pressure off Khartoum. Authorities further sought to silence dissent as civil war recommenced in the Sudanese southern states of South Kordofan and  Blue Nile in the same year as South Sudan’s secession.

On 4 March 2009 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by ICC for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur. But in October 2013 the AU called the ICC racist for failing to file charges against Western leaders or Western allies while prosecuting only African suspects, and demanded the ICC exempt leaders from prosecution. Photo: Public domain
On 4 March 2009 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by ICC for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur. But in October 2013 the AU called the ICC racist for failing to file charges against Western leaders or Western allies while prosecuting only African suspects, and demanded the ICC exempt leaders from prosecution. Photo: Public domain

What are some of the measures through which the state is clamping down on civil society organisations?

Measures range from  indirectly cutting off access to international donor support by blocking organisations’ access to registration to trumped-up charges.

Between 2010 and  2016, nearly a dozen civil society organisations were closed down. This includes human rights organisations such as the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre and also cultural centres such as the Al-Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and  Human Development [KACE].

Every year  the  attacks grow  more aggressive. Instead of simply shutting them down, authorities are  now  implicating civil society organisations and  other actors in court cases  that could lead to even the death penalty.

In 2015, two prominent civil society leaders, Farouk Abu-Issa and Dr Amin Mekki Medani, were arrested after signing a document called the Sudan Call: A Political Declaration on the Establishment of a State of Citizenship and  Democracy, which brought together Sudanese armed and unarmed political forces and civil society actors. They were imprisoned for months as they  faced  charges including waging  war against the state and  undermining the constitution, which carry the death penalty.

Currently, ten individuals tied to a civil society organisation called the Centre for Training and Human Development – known as TRACKs Centre – are  facing  numerous  charges, including espionage. The organisation is accused of working as a front for KACE, which was shut down in 2012. If sentenced, the centre’s staff faces the death penalty or life imprisonment.

All of this is implemented as part of a broader government policy to control all sectors of Sudanese society in the name of national security.

By increasing its control of the press, the state is set to criminalise civil society activities further through shaping public opinion to view such organisations in the same way as armed groups that are a “threat” to national security.

How have these attempts  to control the press played out?

Repeated detentions of journalists and  confiscations of print runs of newspapers have  intimidated many media houses into  submission. Between May and  July 2016, security forces  confiscated at least  six print runs of newspapers, rarely giving any explanation, even though they caused severe economic losses. The biggest target has been the private daily, Al Jareeda, which had  four print runs confiscated since May. Although this is not the first instance of harassment the newspaper has faced,  the scale was unprecedented.

In March 2016, journalists working for Al Tayar newspaper organised  a three-day hunger strike  – the  first of its kind  – protesting the state-led closure of their publication in December 2015 for a series  of editorials criticising government cuts to the energy subsidy. The news- paper had a small victory in court: Sudan’s highest court ruled to allow the paper to resume publishing after the protest. But few newspapers besides this have dared to protest state suppression, as many fear the consequences of publishing critical material.

Censorship is par  for the  course in Sudan. All newspapers are reviewed by an  officer  from  the  National Intelligence and  Security Services before publication. If any article slips through the cracks and is broadly viewed as threatening “national security” or “public morals” or a list of sensitive issues seen by the authorities as red lines, publishers face confiscations, legal battles and  suspensions.

2016-03-01 01:26:32 epa05188871 Sudanese journalists protest against the suspension of El-Tayar daily newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan, 01 March 2016. Reports state, a group of journalists embarked on a hunger strike to protest against the suspension of El-Tayar daily newspaper since mid-December 2015. EPA/MORWAN ALI
2016-03-01 01:26:32 epa05188871 Sudanese journalists protest against the suspension of El-Tayar daily newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan, 01 March 2016. Reports state, a group of journalists embarked on a hunger strike to protest against the suspension of El-Tayar daily newspaper since mid-December 2015. EPA/MORWAN ALI

For journalists, the professional consequences are dire. Dozens of journalists have  been banned from  writing in Sudanese newspapers. Others, like Ali Al Daly and Nada Ramadan in May 2016, face trumped- up legal charges brought by national intelligence or are embroiled in legal battles against the state. Trials can  last for years  – and  if even  if one  is not  summoned to court, charges are never dropped and  they continue to threaten livelihoods, work and  safety.  Even independent online newspapers such as Sudanile face harassment, including hacking or punitive laws to supervise and  monitor their work.

The minister for information said  in parliament that controlling online and  social media should be part of the Press Act and  vowed  to establish a centre to control and  monitor social  media and  what  he termed “rebellious bloggers”.

Are there any professional associations  that can provide civil society space?

Independent trade unions have  come under pressure just  like everyone else.  Due  to their role  in the  unseating of previous dictatorships, they are viewed with a lot of suspicion. In June 2010, authorities arrested the head of the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors and others for organising mass strikes for better pay and  working condi- tions. A national and  international outcry let to their release but  the intimidation is ongoing. Last year the Ministry of Culture shut down the Sudanese Writers Union. Fearing mass public congregations, secu- rity forces also closed down the monthly Mafroush Book Fair. The fair is one of the most important events for writers, artists, journalists and musicians in the country.

The Sudanese and European  governments have recently forged closer ties again, coop- erating  to counter the influx of migrants  and refugees from and via Sudan to Europe. How has this renewed cooperation  affected Sudanese civil society?

In April 2016, Neven Mimica, the  European Commissioner for Inter- national Cooperation and  Development, travelled to  Sudan and announced a grant of EUR100 million for Sudan. The money is part of the EU Emergency Trust  Fund for Africa, which was decided upon in 2015 already. The trust fund is not just supposed to better the situation of internally displaced persons and  refugees inside of Sudan but  to “tackle instability and the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement”. This new international engagement with the Sudanese government will make it more ruthless as it continues to crack  down on  civil society. This  engagement means that the  EU has  turned a blind eye to myriad human rights violations in Sudan and  that the government of Sudan will continue to not  be held  accountable as it wages war on its civilians in the peripheries of the country and wages a different kind of war against the civil society in the urban centres.

What future do you foresee for civil society in the country?

In August,  the  State  Crimes Prosecution Office transferred the  eight human-rights defenders connected to the TRACKs case  – excluding two defenders living outside of Sudan – to Al-Huda Prison in Omdur- man and filed capital charges against them. After almost three months in a four-by-four-metre cell with 26 detainees and  no ventilation, the detainees, along  with three others affiliated with TRACKs, are facing serious charges of undermining the constitutional system, waging war against the state, espionage, and forming a criminal or terrorist organisation. The government continues to smear the defendants through articles in pro-government newspapers that paint them as spies  and foreign agents as well as by using an entire trial session to show porno- graphic films and pictures that were allegedly found on the laptops of the defendants, causing confusion inside the courthouse and  changing the discourse of the trial from a criminal to a moral one. The case is a critical juncture for Sudanese civil society, whose environment is much bleaker now.

As civil society clearly cannot operate freely anymore, many organisations consider going underground. However, it will require serious efforts  to come up with  a framework that can  operate underground while  maintaining transparent financial and  management systems. Access to fiscal support from  international sources will prove challenging.

Similar to oppressive countries such as neighbouring Ethiopia, the visibility of Sudan’s civil society will undoubtedly diminish in the years ahead but it may operate covertly at the local level.

 

This article was first published in Perspectives magazine by the Heinrich Boll Foundation