It was about 4am when I got up on October 25, 2021, the day the military leadership staged a coup that upended Sudan’s transition to democracy.
My phone had been on silent mode. When I checked it, I found an unusual number of missed calls, one of which came in at 3:34am from Khalid Omer, Sudan’s former minister of cabinet affairs. I tried to return his call, but my call did not go through. By then, telecommunications were shut down, and Omer had already been arrested, together with six other ministers targeted by the military leaders of the Sovereignty Council who staged the coup.
Since that morning, political leaders like Omer have been the target of repeated arrests simply because of their central role in resisting the coup. The constant threat to the safety and security of these leaders, along with human rights defenders and civil society activists writ large, is an unequivocal reflection of the authoritarian nature of Sudan’s current de facto government and the serious deterioration in the conditions of human rights in the country.
In November 2021, Omer and other political prisoners were released through the implementation of an agreement the former prime minister signed with the leader of the coup. The agreement collapsed in less than two months; it was fiercely resisted by the overwhelming majority of the Sudanese, fundamentally because it contained explicit language legitimising the coup.
On February 9, 2022, about three months after his release, security forces arrested Omer again. They stormed the headquarters of the Sudanese Congress Party, where he was attending a meeting with the representatives of a variety of anti-coup and anti-military-rule political organisations. Earlier that morning, security forces had also arrested Wagdi Salih, a lawyer and prominent member of the now-suspended Committee for Dismantling the June 30 1989 Regime, Removal of Empowerment and Corruption, and Recovering Public Funds (Dismantlement and Empowerment Removal Committee, DERC), a body that was constitutionally tasked with dismantling former President Omar al-Bashir’s regime after the 2018 democratic revolution forced him out of power. Arrested with him was El Tayeb Osman, DERC’s rapporteur. Later, Mohamed al-Faki, a former member of the Sovereignty Council and co-chair of the DERC, was arrested on February 13, and Taha Osman Ishag, another lawyer and prominent member of the DERC, was arrested on February 19.
These five leaders and 15 other members of the DERC are held incommunicado. They are not the only political detainees in Sudan. There are many other members of pro-democracy groups who have been equally targeted by the Sudanese security forces and are currently in detention centres in Khartoum and other cities across the country. According to statements issued by the Darfur Bar Association and the Committee for the Defence of People Affected by Unlawful Detention and Mass Killing Martyrs, there are more than 200 political detainees – many of whom have not even been interviewed, let alone charged with any crime.
Since the October 25 coup, the target of arrests and killings have been the most active members of the DERC and the resistance committees – the youth-led groups that have formed the backbone of the pro-democracy street protests. Most of the young people killed (at least 94) since the coup had a history or story of heroism, leadership, and involvement in community organising over the past three years. The leaders of the DERC have been particularly targeted for their rigorous work to undo the corruption of al-Bashir’s regime and recover assets unlawfully procured by individuals, companies, and organisations with connections to al-Bashir’s former kleptocratic government.
To justify the arrests, the leaders of the coup are planning to bring lawsuits against many of those arrested – Omer, Salih, al-Faki, Osman, and Ishag included. Lawsuits are being prepared under Section 177(2) of the Sudanese Criminal Act 1991, which deals with criminal breach of trust by a public servant, the punishment of which is “imprisonment, for a term not exceeding fourteen years, together with a fine, or with death”.
Imprisoning vocal political opponents or bringing lawsuits against them is a strategy that has been used in many countries to stifle the voices of regime opponents. Depriving leaders and activists of their freedom silences them, preventing them from contributing to the resistance. This is one of the strategies that the leaders of the October 25 coup are now using to subdue the revolution and resist any transition to civilian rule.
The Sudanese people are determined not to let the imprisonment of political or civil society leaders end the state of revolution Sudan has been witnessing for three years. They will persist in striving for the noble goal of a peaceful, free, and democratic state. But the international community also has an important role to play. Even as global attention rightly shifts to Europe, it is vital that international human rights and media organisations pay particular attention to the violations of freedoms and rights in Sudan.
Given that the current detentions are part of broader human rights violations, such as the killing of peaceful protesters, the United States should, for instance, consider employing the 2012 Magnitsky Act to sanction those who order them. Senior leaders of the African Union and the United Nations should condemn and call for ending these detentions. Regional and international human rights organisations can – on behalf of the victims – bring complaints before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (which had previously decided on cases related to Sudan) or the UN Human Rights Council.
In addition to any legal action that human rights organisations might take, each unlawful arrest and detention must be documented and publicised; these violations cannot be allowed to fade into background noise. The current situation in Sudan is a political crisis, but it is also a human rights crisis, and it should be dealt with as such.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.