Illegal Detention of Women Human Rights Defenders in the Midst of the Border Conflict of Sudan
FRIDAY FILE - Sudanese people inspired by the Arab spring, and led by women and youth, took the streets of Sudan demanding regime change in 2011. Authorities violently cracked down on these demonstrations, detaining more than 150 women, who were sexually abused or tortured, injured and beaten in the protests.
Since June 2012, new protests against the Sudanese regime have intensified violence against women human rights defenders (WHRD).
By Katherine Ronderos
In January 2011, the people from South Sudan voted in favour of secession from Sudan in a referendum process granted by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). This agreement, signed in Kenya in 2005, was the result of a long process of negotiation between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) following 22 years of war. The official split between Sudan and South Sudan took place on 9th July 2011, in a peaceful way with widespread celebrations by South Sudanese people.
When South Sudan seceded, it acquired 75% of the country's oil reserves, but the pipelines run through Sudan to reach the Red Sea. Relations between Sudan and South Sudan have been marked by armed conflict over the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline and the disputed oil-rich border region of Abyei, claimed by both sides as part of their sovereign territory. There has been disagreement between the two former civil war enemies, who differ on the amount South Sudan should pay Sudan in transit fees. This resulted in all oil exports being cut off, triggering a collapse in government revenues, which, combined with tough austerity measures, threw both nations into turmoil. Oil production only resumed in April 2013.
Southern Kordofan, a border state between Sudan and South Sudan, is largely populated by the Nuba, Hawazma and Misseriya nomadic tribes. In June 2011, after weeks of growing tension over security arrangements and state elections, fighting between Sudan government forces and the South Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) started in the region. In Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, government soldiers and militia shot civilians and arrested suspected Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) supporters during house-to-house searches and checkpoint stops, also looting and burning churches and homes. Sudan armed forces bombed indiscriminately across the region, forcing the population to seek shelter in caves and mountains where they lacked food, shelter, and hygiene. The government also refused to allow aid groups into affected areas, effectively blockading much of the Nuba Mountains region.
Violence against Sudanese WHRDs
On 10th November 2012, the Sudanese army in Kadugli detained 34 Sudanese women from the Nuba Mountains region without charge or access to legal representation. The women were accused of spying for the SPLM-N, which has been fighting against the Sudanese government since June 2011. The arrests came in the wake of escalating violence against WHRDs and a worsening humanitarian crisis that has seen indiscriminate attacks on civilians, on-going aerial bombing, and denial of humanitarian assistance, which has lead to the displacement of thousands in the Nuba Mountains region.
The Sudanese WHRDs and their children were held without access to legal representation and were later transferred to Al Obied Prison. Since then, they have suffered torture, sexual violence, and inhuman prison conditions. In a public statement Amnesty International reported that some of the women detained suffer from medical conditions including seizures and diabetes, but all have been denied medical treatment. The charges against 14 WHRDs, who have been temporarily released, have not yet been confirmed, but the allegations include serious crimes - such as participating in a crime, attempting to commit a crime, making and counterfeiting seals and official marks- that could result in a sentence of up to five years under Sudanese criminal law,
In an interview with AWID, Nazik Kabalo, a Sudanese WHRD who was forced to flee the country in February 2012, shared some of the challenges she faced when she was arrested in Khartoum for leading the underground “No for Way Campaign” in support of aid distribution and education to Nuba people. Thanks to her Arabic ethnicity, Kabalo was released after 12 hours detention with the commitment to report to the police, unlike her Nuba colleague and WHRD, Jalila Khamis, who was detained for ten months and charged with five criminal offences, including two charges under the category of crimes against the state, which carry the death penalty.
At a meeting of the African Commission for Human Rights in Côte d’Ivoire in October 2012, the Sudanese government publicly intimidated Kabalo, stating they would take legal steps against her for attacking the government of Sudan.
Kabalo says “women were the first to take action against the war in the Nuba Mountains region and are now well-known leaders who have started to gain power in their communities. The government started to identify this new leadership among women and started to persecute some of them”. Kabalo highlights the double discrimination that Nuba WHRDs face because of, their ethnicity and their gender. Nuba WHRDs have been treated very badly and violently while imprisoned and many now suffer psychological disorders.
Challenges for WHRDs in Sudan
According to Kabalo, the situation of WHRDs in Sudan needs to be analysed within the bigger political picture. There is strong centralisation of the government with the Arab majority controlling power and discriminating against ethnic minorities. Kabalo adds “In the last ten years WHRDs in Sudan have started to talk publicly about taboo issues such as racism, discrimination, violence against women, sexual health and reproductive rights”. But the Sudanese government is imposing Islamic law, which limit women’s rights, including the “Public Order Law”, which impedes freedom of movement, controls clothing and imposes stereotyped jobs for women. As a result, there has been an increase in violence, sexual abuse and repression against WHRDs.
Kabalo says that the main challenges for WHRDs in Sudan include the work they do advocating against the current government’s policies and the economic and political context and democratic transition in the country. According to her “the armed conflict has increased marginalisation and discrimination of ethnic minorities and women”.
Protection mechanisms for WHRDs’ security remain a challenge, “they don’t have anywhere to go, there is no national human rights instrument formally in place and there is limited presence of international humanitarian and human rights organizations”.
International response and solidarity
WHRDs like Kabalo have consistently reported human rights violations to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Although the UN mechanisms raised these issues with the Sudanese government, there have been no concrete results. WHRDs demand firm UN statements and positive political actions that lead to the enforcement and enjoyment of human rights.
Some of the recommendations made during the UN Universal Periodic Review on Sudan in May 2011 included addressing the continuing discriminatory laws against women, sexual and gender-based violence, media censorship and the arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders and journalists, which are prevalent in the conflict areas of Darfur and South Sudan.
The UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan recommended to the government of Sudan to “ensure that human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, members of the political opposition, journalists and other civil society members are not intimidated, arrested and detained, ill-treated or tortured by State agents on account of their work, opinions or peaceful assembly.”
Nevertheless, Kabalo is positive about the solidarity and support they have received from sister organizations worldwide, “As much as WHRDs are being oppressed, they have been greatly supported by the international community, women’s organizations and WHRDs around the world and feminists in Sudan continue pushing for peace”.
Join the Arry Organization’s online petition to call on the Sudanese government to immediately either charge the detained women with a legitimate offence or unconditionally release them without delay!
 During the two months of demonstrations 100 women were detained for hours or days, 14 women were detained for more that 5 weeks, a 17-year old female student was killed and 4 women were injured during the protests. In Sudanese WHRDs at the Frontlines, by Arry Organization for Human Rights and the Sudanese Women Human Rights Project, March 2013.
 Update:14 of the Nuba Women Detainees Released Today, Arry Organization for Human Rights, 25th April 2013.