Protesters remain in Sudan’s prisons as dialogue is postponed

Lawyers say that there are many more anti-coup protesters in prison than the authorities acknowledge.

Protesters march during a rally against military rule
Protesters have taken to the streets since October's military coup in Sudan [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah]

On January 15, Mohamad Adam was recuperating in hospital after being wounded during Sudan’s anti-coup protests.

But, according to his family and lawyers, Sudanese security forces stormed into the hospital and detained the 17-year-old – known to his friends as “Tupac” – and then charged him, along with two others, with killing a senior police officer who had mysteriously died two days earlier.

All three were taken to a security facility in the capital Khartoum.

Mohamad’s lawyers and rights groups say that is where he was tortured and interrogated about the protest movement for three weeks, before eventually giving a false confession.

In February, Mohamad was transferred to another prison in the capital, where his mother Nidal was finally allowed to see him.

“When they brought us to his cell, I could see that he couldn’t walk,” Nidal told Al Jazeera. “They had hammered four nails into his ankles … and I discovered marks and scars from the beatings they gave him on his head and neck.”

Three months after Nidal’s visit, Sudanese authorities released dozens of prisoners, including high-profile politicians.

Military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the military coup that upended Sudan’s frail transition to democracy last October, said the move was a confidence-building measure ahead of a scheduled tripartite national dialogue on Tuesday, which was postponed for undisclosed reasons at the last minute.

The dialogue will be jointly mediated by the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the African Union (AU), and Eastern Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

But instead of optimism, experts and lawyers fear that the global community is deprioritising the release of dozens of lower-profile detainees, such as Mohamad, to accelerate a new political deal between the military government and civilian elites.

Politicians over protesters

Khalid Omar Yousef and Mohamed al-Faki Suleiman are among the highest-profile politicians who have been recently released.

During Sudan’s brief democratic transition, the duo worked for the Empowerment Removal Committee, which was tasked with confiscating millions of dollars worth of assets from cronies affiliated with former President Omar al-Bashir – a mandate that struck at the heart of the military’s patronage networks and made all members of the committee a target after the coup.

For two months, Yousef and Suleiman were held before being released ahead of a meeting between Sudan’s military leadership and western envoys on April 29, according to Kholood Khair, a Sudanese expert and the head of the Khartoum-based think-tank Insight Strategy Partners.

Khair told Al Jazeera that the global community had missed an opportunity to exert more leverage on the military government by demanding the release of all political detainees before agreeing to move ahead with any dialogue process.

She added that the envoys appear to be prioritising the release of civilian politicians, as they are desperately trying to find personalities that they can support in negotiations with the military, especially following the resignation of former civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on January 2.

“Khalid Omar [Yousef] and Mohamad al-Faki [Suleiman] are seen as the golden boys of the [previous] civilian-led government. And it is fine that the [global community] champions these people, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of other detainees,” Khair said.

Rifaat Makkawi, a Sudanese human rights lawyer representing detainee families, also told Al Jazeera that the global community must do more to secure the freedom of lower-profile prisoners.

He noted that because authorities typically deny that protesters have been arrested – and then hold most of them without charge – neither families nor lawyers are able to visit detainees.

“The government knows that if [lawyers] interview detainees, then we will document all the torture and the human rights violations against them. That’s what the government is scared about,” Makkawi told Al Jazeera.

“But the real issue is with the international community,” he added. “They are mainly interested in freeing the politicians, but there are many other detainees that still need to be freed, too.”

Ongoing Crackdown

While some protesters have been released in recent days, security officers continue to crack down on the pro-democracy movement.

On May 5, authorities arrested 25 protesters during anti-coup demonstrations.

Plainclothes officers later attacked detainee families for demanding the release of their loved ones outside a police station in the capital, and three more people were detained during the incident, according to a cohort of Sudanese attorneys who call themselves the Emergency Lawyers.

Sudan’s Public Prosecutor Khalifa Ahmed did not respond to queries sent by Al Jazeera regarding the detention of prisoners without charge for several weeks and months – a practice that lawyers say is against the law.

In February, Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected Western criticism following the arrest of civilian politicians.

“This is blatant interference in Sudanese affairs, [and] contrary to diplomatic norms and practices,” the ministry said in a statement at the time.

Mohamed Osman, who monitors abuses in Sudan for Human Rights Watch, said that authorities are now transferring prisoners to facilities outside of Khartoum to torment families.

Many were reportedly taken to Port Sudan in the east of the country and subsequently released on May 4. However, they were rearrested the next day without charge, prompting activists in the city to hold a silent protest.

Other prisoners have been transferred to White Nile state and to a prison in the suburbs of Khartoum that is controlled by Sudan’s feared intelligence service, said Osman.

“The transfers certainly aim to create more difficulties for lawyers and families to access and follow up on the detainees,” he told Al Jazeera. “Arrests are not documented adequately and this is done intentionally. In 99 percent of cases, lawyers or families have to use their own connections to locate detainees.”

“The question is whether authorities are vacating Khartoum’s prisons to make room for another massive crackdown on protesters,” said Khair.

Despite the risk of more sweeping arrests, protesters and detainee families warn that more people will join demonstrations if state violence increases.

Nidal explained how her son Mohamad had become more impassioned about the protest movement after security forces shot and killed two of his friends last year in a demonstration.

At the time, Nidal said that he could not fathom how anyone could carry on with their daily lives while people were killed and arrested in the streets.

As Mohamad languishes in prison, Nidal wishes world powers felt the same way her son does.

“I thought human rights groups and the global community have ways to pressure our government [to release people],” she told Al Jazeera. “I just don’t understand anymore. I don’t know why our government is doing this to us. Why are they arresting and killing their people?”

Source: Al Jazeera