Khartoum, Sudan – On February 7, Joun Ali and his relatives were woken from sleep at dusk by a squad of security forces who had stormed their home.
They were looking for his older brother Mohamad, a respected activist from Omdurman, the largest city in Sudan. Ali, 42, told them his elder brother wasn’t home, but officers found him in the bedroom and took him away.
By sunrise, authorities at the police station and the National Security office denied knowledge of the arrest. That evening, a human rights lawyer helped locate Mohamad by asking personal contacts in the incarceration system. He was discovered languishing without charge in Khartoum’s Soba prison, and no visitors were allowed.
“Mohamad used to participate in demonstrations just like me and everyone else,” said Ali. “If [the security forces] are abducting every person protesting, then they will have to arrest the whole country.”
Since a military coup on October 25 last year and the imposition of a nationwide state of emergency afterward, there have been arbitrary arrests of protesters across Sudan. In recent weeks, that campaign has ramped up as dozens of activists like Mohammed have disappeared only to turn up in state custody. In Soba alone, at least 105 people are being held without due process, prompting most of them to go on hunger strike.
The power grab ended a fragile democratic transition that began months after popular protests unseated Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Now, as demonstrators return to the streets to demand civilian rule, their calls have been answered with brutal repression.
Security forces have abducted protesters and politicians from their homes, offices, and even hospitals – as well as killed 81 people. In most cases, state authorities officially deny the arrests or slam trumped-up charges against detainees.
No Due Process
Noon Kashkosh, a member of the Democratic Coalition for Lawyers which is providing legal assistance to families of the detained, told Al Jazeera that security forces are trying to discourage protests by pressing outlandish charges against young demonstrators.
“They have accused one detainee of setting a police car on fire and they have accused others of burning or destroying police stations,” she said. “They have also arbitrarily arrested people on the street and included them in an ongoing case.”
But the wave of detentions has fueled the resolve of protesters to stay on the streets rather than back down.
The abduction of 17-year-old Mohamad Adam – known by his friends as Tupac – has even become a rallying cry for the pro-democracy movement.
Protesters in this demonstration in Khartoum chant:
“Tupac is not a killer, Tupac is a fighter [against injustice]”
— Munchkin (@BSonblast) January 17, 2022
Four days after a January 13 march in which Adam sustained injuries from security forces, plainclothes officers abducted the youngster from a Khartoum hospital where he was being treated.
Local newspapers report that he had been accused of murdering a senior police officer, who died during the protests. On February 8, Adam’s lawyer told reporters at a news conference, which Al Jazeera attended, that he was tortured into giving a false confession.
“No authority can arrest people without due process,” said Kashkosh. “This is all illegal and contradicts the constitution and international convents.”
Emma DiNapoli, a legal officer focusing on Sudan with Redress, a non-profit advocating for torture victims worldwide, told Al Jazeera she was doubtful that the public prosecutor, appointed by the coup leaders on December 2, is acting independently or prioritising the rule of law.
“A significant measure of responsibility lies with his office in terms of both increasing judicial harassment of human rights defenders and failing to open cases on behalf of victims and their families,” she said.
The public prosecutor, Khalifa Ahmed, declined to comment on the abductions over the phone and insisted on meeting in person. However, follow-up calls to locate his office went unanswered.
The pattern of enforced disappearances and unlawful arrests has prompted strong condemnation from world powers in recent times.
The abduction of Amira Osman, a longtime human rights activist, from her home on the night of January 22, made international headlines. Due to global pressure, she was finally released after being detained for 15 days in a women’s prison in Omdurman.
However, she now faces charges for possession of illegal weapons and ammunition after security forces found five old bullets in her wardrobe. Osman has said that she kept the bullets as souvenirs after winning the National Shooting Championship in 2016.
“The main motive of these [arrests] is to defame activists and stop protesters from mobilising,” the 42-year-old told Al Jazeera. “The police and military claim that we assault police and that’s why we’re arrested, but that’s not true.”
Sudanese politicians have been targeted too. On February 9, the outspoken Wajdi Saleh was summoned for arrest; another, Khaled Omar Youssef was taken from the headquarters of his political party on the same day.
Both men previously worked for the Empowerment and Dismantling Committee, which the transitional government tasked with seizing property stolen by Bashir-era cronies and firing civil servants linked to that regime. Their work reportedly threatened the military’s core patronage networks.
The duo’s arrest also came a day after they participated in a UN-led consultation process aimed to restore the democratic transition – the initiative has international backing but little support at home.
The EU and five Western governments including the UK and the US have issued a joint statement calling for the release of the politicians, as well as journalists, aid workers, and others who have been unlawfully arrested since the coup.
Still, rights groups fear that world powers are failing to hold the military accountable for upending Sudan’s democratic transition.
“Releasing detainees is the short-term goal, but that should not lead [the] international [community] to be blind … to the overall demands of the popular movement as they seek to establish the Sudan they want,” said Mohamad Osman, a researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
Ali, who continues to lobby for his brother’s release, echoes the same view and is adamant that the risk of arrest will not deter him or his family from protesting. On February 14, he participated in a march in a number of cities nationwide alongside hundreds of thousands of people demanding the release of detainees and a transition to full civilian governance.
“All these abductions won’t stop the revolution,” he said. “It just ignites us even more.”