(Nairobi) – Sudan’s political actors and international partners should ensure that progress on human rights and accountability for serious human rights violations are central to any new transition, Human Rights Watch said today. This includes an end to the violent crackdown against peaceful protesters, releasing arbitrarily detained protesters, and taking concrete steps to ensure accountability for serious abuses.
On December 5, 2022, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), which formed the civilian component of the former transitional government, signed a new “framework agreement” with the military leadership and other political parties. The document lays out basic principles and government structures but defers five key contentious issues, including transitional justice and security sector reform, to a second phase of talks.
“The last 14 months have shown how widespread impunity fosters more killings and other abuses,” said Mohamed Osman, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Accountability is critical for the future and should not be swept under the rug.”
This agreement comes over a year after military leaders ousted the power-sharing transitional government on October 25, 2021 and killed 122 people in the protests that followed.
The agreement states that the incoming transitional government will be formed by civilians and that all government forces will be under civilian leadership. The vaguely worded agreement lays out general principles for the formation of the transitional institutions and reiterates commitments to promote freedoms and rights and accountability, and to reform security forces. The agreement, however, fails to spell out any clear time frames, details, or benchmarks for justice and security sector reform, stating that plans are to be discussed at a second stage.
Protest groups, including resistance committees, rejected the agreement, objecting as they have done since the coup to any new power-sharing with the coup leaders in light of their involvement in the coup and security force abuses since then. The FFC contends that deferring justice and security sector reform plans to a later phase allows for more consultation with stakeholders and families of those killed. But the agreement does not provide any details on the process, nor does it contain benchmarks or consequences for failure to achieve these reforms, Human Rights Watch said.
Since the military coup, security forces have been violently dispersing peaceful protests. Security forces have carried out widespread arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and in some cases ill-treatment, torture, and sexual violence.
While many detained protesters were released in May, arrests of protesters have continued and at least 12 remain in detention facing two separate trials, one for the alleged killing of a senior police commander and the second for the alleged killing of a military intelligence sergeant. Human Rights Watch documented ill treatment at arrest and torture in detention of at least two of the detainees standing trial, Mohamed Adam, who was 17 year old at time of arrest, known as “Tupac” and Ahmed al-Nanna.
International supporters, including the “Quad” countries, the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Nations, should seize this moment to call for the release of all those unjustly detained following the coup, as well as to ensure that peaceful protesters, including those who oppose the agreement, can exercise their freedoms safely, Human Rights Watch said.
Junta leaders have said that all post-coup abuses would be investigated, but there have been no meaningful steps to hold those responsible to account. A draft proposal seen by Human Rights Watch and reported by media outlets says that junta leaders requested immunity from prosecution for post-coup abuses and that the only cases brought forward will be against subordinates. The FFC has denied agreeing to this proposal, saying it cannot be done without “consultation and broad acceptance of stakeholders.”
Rifaat Makkawi, a lawyer working with families of those killed in post-coup protests, said that there have been no effective steps to investigate or prosecute those responsible. “Many of the obstacles we are facing, such as lifting immunity of officials or getting prosecutors to collect evidence instead of asking families to take on that burden, are problems we also had during the transition,” he told Human Rights Watch.
During the upended transition, Human Rights Watch documented only limited progress on domestic justice initiatives. Despite making commitments and forming multiple investigation committees, the transitional authorities failed to develop a clear justice strategy or to allocate sufficient resources to the justice sector while security forces have refused to cooperate with investigations. Investigations and a handful of prosecutions against officials for past abuses have focused on low-ranking officers.
The agreement largely overlooks Darfur, the site of almost two decades of conflict and serious abuses. During the former transition as well as following the coup, the authorities failed to protect civilians or roll out any form of accountability efforts, leaving civilians there vulnerable to ongoing cycles of attacks, Human Rights Watch said. Sudanese political forces and their international and regional backers should ensure that any transition process guarantees substantial accountability measures. The situation in Darfur in particular should be addressed, both to improve protection of civilians and to provide justice for past and recent abuses, including through the surrender of the suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court including Omar al-Bashir, the former longtime ruler, who is in government custody. They should prioritize key reforms to the justice sector and ensure that coup leaders or others implicated in serious abuses are not shielded from being held to account, Human Rights Watch said.
International backers should also unequivocally reject any form of impunity for serious crimes, notably for those in position of command, Human Rights Watch said.
“Sudan’s recent and past history shows all too clearly the dangers of kicking the justice can down the road,” Osman said. “Sudan’s political leaders should take seriously calls for justice by protesters and other stakeholders.”