El-Geneina, Sudan – When one of Sudan’s most powerful paramilitary leaders returned for peace talks in his stronghold of Darfur, not everyone was on board.
The leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo or “Hemeti”, reached several reconciliation deals earlier this year, including some with his rivals, to end the intermittent fighting that has blighted the region over the past year. A wider agreement was also signed between the military and political parties in December.
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But many Sudanese have protested or criticised the deals, demanding that members of Hemeti’s own Rzeigat Arab tribe and the RSF face punishment for their alleged role in killing hundreds of people in the region in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch.
Now, some of those dissenters say they have been detained by the RSF and held without charge.
“I went inside a big intelligence office. The [RSF] had a lot of questions about who I am and why I don’t want peace and stability,” said Faisal, 25, who added that he had spent three days in prison and asked Al Jazeera not to disclose his surname for fear of reprisal.
According to the Darfur Bar Association, approximately 350 people were detained without charge across the province between June and August. Dozens, including Faisal, have been released. But the legal group says that many are still languishing in prison for their real or perceived rejection of Hemeti’s reconciliation agreements.
Critics say that the arrests are part of a broader plot by the RSF to consolidate power in Darfur since backing a military coup in October 2021, which upended the country’s frail democratic transition.
“Before the coup, the people [in west Darfur] didn’t want the RSF here. The RSF only came back … after the coup,” said Nahid Hamid, a human rights lawyer from the African Masalit tribe. The Masalit, along with media and human rights organisations, have accused the RSF and the Rzeigat of attacking them in recent years. “There is no justice and no rule of law. The whole situation [with the arrests] is unlawful.”
Al Jazeera attempted to contact the RSF spokesman General Osman Hamdan and Sudan’s public prosecutor Khalifa Ahmed Khalifa several times, yet neither could be reached for comment.
But Fadil Barus, a member of the Rzeigat tribe, said that the reconciliation agreements were welcomed by him and many others from his community. His views reflect a broader opinion among Sudanese that identify as Arabs in Darfur, with many viewing the Masalit as equal aggressors.
“The peace deals will put an end to the wars between the tribes,” he told Al Jazeera. The Arabs want peace and we hope that all the tribes in [West Darfur] can live without problems now.”
Most of those detained in Darfur were moved to Port Sudan or to the capital of Khartoum, two cities that require a 24- to 48-hour bus commute, according to the Darfur Bar Association. The distance has made it practically impossible for relatives of detainees to visit their loved ones in order for them to deliver basic necessities such as food, medicine and clean clothes.
During a press conference in November that Al Jazeera attended in Khartoum, several Sudanese lawyers said that the conditions for prisoners amounted to cruelty and maltreatment.
“[In prison], they are not fed properly – just a sandwich a day – and they are not allowed to go to the bathroom, forcing [each person] into relieving themself in a bucket as they are chained to another prisoner. These conditions are truly a violation of their basic human rights,” said Egbal Ahmed Ali, a Sudanese lawyer who spoke at the press conference.
On December 11, more than 200 detainees from Darfur started a hunger strike to demand their release. The tactic prompted authorities to free 57 detainees, yet foreign officials have remained silent about the plight of those still behind bars.
Many have instead celebrated the signing of a framework agreement that security forces signed with politicians on December 5.
Diplomats expressed hope that the agreement could pave the way for a renewed transition to democracy in Sudan.
But the ongoing detention of dozens of people from Darfur suggests that the international community did not base the deal on securing human rights concessions or commitments from the coup leaders, according to Kholood Khair, the founding director of the Khartoum-based think-tank Confluence Advisory.
“This deal has been massively liberating for the generals and hugely constraining for the civilians and that is evident by the way that human rights abuses have been left to go on without any focus or attention … we may even be seeing an increase in human rights abuses,” Khair said.
A Western diplomat in Khartoum confirmed to Al Jazeera that Western embassies in the city had not made a concerted effort to secure the release of unlawful detainees from Darfur.
“There has been no collective pressure, just ad hoc,” the diplomat, who was not authorised to speak publically, said.
Despite the reported arrests, the RSF has been able to present itself as a supporter of human rights.
On December 6, Hemeti called the October coup a mistake and encouraged the security forces to commit to “transitional justice”. The next week, Sudan’s government-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) named Hemeti person of the year for 2022, citing his role in mediating peace agreements in Darfur.
“What is clear is that the putschists have learned that all they need to do is provide human rights lip service. That is the lesson they have drawn from this entire exercise,” Khair said, referring to the opaque political talks that led to the framework agreement.
Hemeti has also been accused of rewarding alleged human rights abusers within his own ranks. Over the summer, he appointed Musa Hamid Ambilo to head the reconciliation committee tasked with implementing the tribal peace agreements in West Darfur.
Witnesses and the lawyers representing them told Al Jazeera that, under instruction from Ambilo, his men participated in the mass killing of Masalit residents of Krending camp for internally displaced people in December 2019. An unverified video from that time appears to show Ambilo, also a member of the Rzeigat tribe, standing before a crowd in his RSF uniform with a man that declares war against the Krending.
The attack on the camp saw at least 102 people killed, homes burned down, thousands displaced and property looted, according to the joint UN-Africa Union peacekeeping force whose mandate expired a year after the attack. However, Ambilo has never been held accountable despite calls from community leaders and local activists for his arrest.
Hemeti has refused to lift Ambilo’s legal immunity, which is bestowed on all members of Sudan’s security forces to protect them from criminal prosecution, say lawyers and human rights groups.
Ambilo was instead relocated to Khartoum and then eventually brought back to spearhead the campaign of unlawful arrests in West Darfur, while Hemeti’s brother, Abdel Raheem Dagalo, oversaw the arrests in North Darfur, according to the Darfur Bar Association.
Attempts were made by Al Jazeera to contact Ambilo via the RSF for comment on the allegations, but no response was forthcoming.
Back in Khartoum, Hemeti has hailed himself as a peacemaker, to the dismay of many in Darfur.
“The RSF can’t just force an agreement on us. These are the same people that are killing us,” said Ibrahim Ali, a member of the Masalit tribe who witnessed some of the arrests. ”The [RSF] kills us at night and then sprinkles sugar on the funeral the next morning as if to say everything is ok, but it’s not ok. Hemeti is responsible for all of our problems.”