Police escape accountability in Sudan after prisoner death

Death of a Sudanese-Ethiopian man in custody shows rising trend of police brutality since Sudan’s military coup, and a lack of accountability, say family and activists.

Sudanese confront the police during a protest against the military coup that ousted government last month, in Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is currently under house arrest in the capital of Khartoum. He and more than 100 other government officials were detained during the coup. Many have been kept in undisclosed locations.
Sudanese protesters confront police during a demonstration against the military coup in Khartoum, Sudan [File: Marwan Ali/AP Photo]

Khartoum, Sudan – In the early morning of October 11, a plain-clothes police officer arrested Mudasser Kamal after his vehicle broke down in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The 29-year-old Sudanese-Ethiopian man was then taken to the police station. He did not come out alive.

Officers did not give a consistent explanation for Kamal’s death, according to his family. First, the police told them that Kamal had died from natural causes; they then claimed that he had actually died from a drug overdose.

But when the family went to the morgue to identify Kamal’s corpse, they saw bruises, scars and blood all over his body. They will not know what happened until they have more information from authorities or witnesses, but the family believes the officers may have tortured him to extort money. Sudanese police have been accused of detaining young men, particularly those perceived to be foreigners, to request bribes for their release.

“I hope someone kills my son’s killer in the same way that he killed my son,” Argo Gouady, Kamal’s tearful mother, told Al Jazeera.

Kamal’s death encapsulates what activists and lawyers have termed a rising trend in police brutality since a military coup derailed Sudan’s transition to democracy on October 25 last year. Last month, police officers killed two more young men, according to medics: the first with live ammunition and the other by ramming a car into a crowd. The killings raised the total number of deaths from anti-coup protests to 119.

The government has failed to credibly investigate police killings, despite calls from the United Nations to do so. As a result of the coup, police officers enjoy total impunity to unlawfully detain, beat and kill civilians, say activists, lawyers and rights groups.

Sudan [Mat Nashed/Al Jazeera]
Mudasser Kamal’s parents are pictured at home with his aunt, Hanin Awad (left), mother Argo Gouady (middle) and father Kamal Awad (right) [Mat Nashed/Al Jazeera]

A pretext for violence

After large protests were held on the first anniversary of the military coup, Sudan’s police force released a statement calling for exceptional powers to crack down on what it alleged were “armed formations” among demonstrators.

While no public statements have been released confirming whether the request has been granted, the police rhetoric is consistent with previous pronouncements from Sudan’s army that accuse members of the country’s pro-democracy movement of instigating acts of violence.

While some young men have been charged with killing members of the security forces, rights groups and lawyers believe the arrests have been politically motivated. They say the defendants have been denied due process and in some cases, tortured, to extract false confessions.

“We have not seen any act taken by protesters that can be classified as not peaceful. According to all international standards, all actions by demonstrators can be classified within the scope of ‘non-violent’ actions,” said Moneim Adam from the Sudanese Archive, an investigation team whose open-source research has helped international rights groups to document violations in the country.

The Sudanese Archive has accused police of intentionally using excessive force during demonstrations, including driving trucks into crowds, shooting tear gas directly at people and frequently firing live ammunition.

Members of Sudan’s resistance committees, the neighbourhood groups spearheading the pro-democracy movement, also say that they have been attacked by who they suspect to be plain-clothes police officers.

The Sudanese Archive, which has documented abuses by civilian-clothed perpetrators who often coordinate with police to attack demonstrators, supports this claim. However, it is unclear who these perpetrators are, and who they report to.

“This tactic [of wearing civilian clothes] is used to make it hard for anyone to identify them. Some wrap scarves around their faces … others ride along with men wearing police uniforms in pick-up trucks that don’t have licence plates,” said Adam.

Protesters fear that they could be mistaken for these civilian-clothed perpetrators by diplomats and foreign observers, allowing authorities to escalate repression.

“The [police] are attempting to whitewash their crimes and justify more killings. The protests have always been peaceful and nobody carries weapons. From the coup until this moment, we have almost 120 martyrs,” said Zuhair al-Dalee, a member of the resistance committee in East Nile, a neighbourhood in Khartoum.

Al Jazeera attempted to contact police spokesperson Brigadier-General Abdallah Bashir al-Badri multiple times for comment but he did not respond.

Total impunity

Sudanese police officers enjoy immunity for actions carried out while on official duty, according to Article 45 of the country’s Police Forces Act and Article 35 of the Criminal Procedures Act. The latter grants immunity to all civil servants, not just police officers.

Emma DiNapoli, a legal officer for Redress, a non-profit advocating for legal reforms that improve human rights worldwide, told Al Jazeera that these laws enable police to commit grave violations with total impunity.

“International law says that immunity for serious human rights violations are impermissible,” she said. “Legal reform is the initial need [in Sudan] because you can’t have a foundation of prosecutions unless the law permits those prosecutions.”

According to Sudanese law, only the head of state or the interior minister can lift immunity from a police officer. Al Jazeera asked the spokesman of the Sudanese Army, Nabil Abdullah, if any officer had lost their immunity for killing protesters since the military coup.

While Abdullah declined to answer, he did express his opposition to the labelling of last year’s military power grab as a coup.

Al Jazeera also sought comment from Sudan’s Public Prosecutor Khalifa Ahmed, but he did not respond to written queries or phone calls by publication.

According to Al-Kashef Hassin, one of the lawyers representing Kamal’s family, both the law in Sudan and those who uphold it are tasked with protecting authorities at all costs.

Hassin said he had filed several petitions to the state prosecutor asking him to request that the warden of the police station where Kamal was killed be stripped of his immunity.

“The prosecutor always claims that there are procedural mistakes in my petitions, but I know that he’s just trying to protect the police,” Hassin told Al Jazeera.

The lack of accountability enables police officers to escalate violence against protesters, while harassing, arbitrarily detaining and sometimes killing young people, he said.

Like many families, Kamal’s loved ones believe that they have little chance of pursuing justice within Sudan’s legal system.

“I don’t know much about the legal process that is happening, but it’s taking too long,” said Gouady, Kamal’s mother. “I don’t trust the law, courts, or the prosecution.”

Source: Al Jazeera