Inside Sudan's prisons: Sudanese protesters speak out

Sudan's National Intelligence Security Service, blamed for the arrests and detention of some 2,000 protesters in the past month, are using torture, activists say. 

The last time Gamal Abdelrahim saw his wife was on July 3, the day that Sudanese government security agents arrested her in her office for her alleged role in street protests against the government that began in June and have persisted for weeks.

Mr. Abdelrahim went to the Khartoum offices of Sudan’s National Intelligence Security Service to give medicine and clothes to his wife, Nahid Jabralla, a prominent women’s rights activist. She was alive and well then, four hours after her arrest, Abdelrahim says. Since then, however, he has not heard anything about her.

"Some indicators imply that she is in Omdurman Women's Prison in a separate zone completely isolated from other parts of the prison and 100 percent controlled by the Security Organ," he told the Monitor in an e-mail interview. Abdelrahim’s is concerned for his wife’s health: she is due for surgery this month.  

Ms. Jabralla is just one of some 2,000 Sudanese civic activists, students, opposition party members, and journalists who have disappeared into Sudan’s jails and detention centers over the past few weeks in a government crackdown against growing dissent. The current wave of protests were initially sparked on June 16, by anger over government austerity measures, such as cutbacks in subsidies over food, housing, and school fees. Protests have now spread from Khartoum to other cities, and many demonstrators now say they will only stop when the current regime of President Omar Al-Bashir has fallen.

It may not have reached the level of an Arab Spring, but it is a season of discontent that clearly has the Sudanese government worried.

“Instead of responding to the protesters’ concerns, the Sudanese government appears to be targeting select individuals for their presumed political views,” says Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Sudan should immediately release those detained for engaging in political protests and respect their right to exercise freedom of expression and association.”

Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters, who swarmed into central chokepoints and shut down capital cities, protesters in Sudan have focused primarily on university campuses, where the protest movement began. Sudan has also received much less news coverage, in part because Sudan has deported several foreign journalists, and restricted the number who can come in to the country.

Harsh treatment backfires for government?

The harsh treatment of protesters – which rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say includes torture – seems to be backfiring. Instead of discouraging more protests, each round of mass arrests and detentions simply sparks another wave of protests. On Monday July 16, some 300 Sudanese lawyers took to the streets in Khartoum to protest the Friday arrests.

The latest batch of arrests – at least 40 women, demonstrators say – occurred on Friday, after a protest organized by a youth group called Girifna. Girifna (the group’s name means “We’re Fed Up”) has been calling for nonviolent resistance campaigns to overthrow the Bashir regime. Last week, they choose to honor Sudanese women, both the female students at the University of Khartoum who started these protests back in mid-June and the mothers of those protesters who have been detained.

Deliberately linking the Sudanese protest movement with the successful Tahrir Square protest movement in Egypt, Girifna called their protests Al-Kandake, in honor of the queens of Nubia. Nubia is a region that includes parts of present-day Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt. When Girifna took demonstrators into the streets of Jabrah neighborhood of Khartoum on Friday, police responded with truncheons and tear gas.

Protest arrests

Sudan’s security organ, the National Intelligence Security Service, has not focused solely on the students who take to the streets, but also on known opposition figures, human rights activists, lawyers, and other civil society figures, hoping to nip the protest movement in the bud.

Among those arrested in the past few days are Faisal Shabu, a colleague at Gabralla’s organization for female victims of violence, who was arrested at his office, and reportedly transferred to Kober, Sudan's highest-security prison. 

Other activists thought to be detained at Kober prison include social media activist Usama Ali who was detained on June 22 in a protest in Khartoum; Mohamed Hassan Alim, a high-profile political activist who is now serving his 9th detention due to his activism; and Mohamed Salah, a student activist who is a senior at the University of Khartoum.

That Salah was arrested is no surprise to his family. Salah’s brother, Badr Al-Deen Salah, says his entire family are political activists in one form or another. “When security agents come to our house, we have to ask them who they are here for,” he says.

His mother, Zenab Badr Al-Deen, a teacher and activist, writes weekly open letters to the government calling for his release.

"My son, you have the honor and strength of immortals,” she wrote in one of her recent letters. “Your captors are despicable, broken, their leaders shake in fear. For 15 days, NISS have been prisoners in their castle, while you are free in your cell."

On Friday, Badr Al-Deen herself was arrested along with Salah’s sister Wala after leaving the protest at the Wad Nubawi mosque in Khartoum, where protesters have taken refuge. She was released a few hours later, just in time to visit her son at the prison for the first time since his arrest.

"His hands were shaking in a strange way, that’s why we believe that he was beaten on his head," tweeted Salah's sister, Wala, after their visit on Saturday. 

'I will protest until she is back with me'

Not all of those arrested by the Sudanese regime are protesters. Shaima Adil is an Egyptian journalist based in Khartoum. She was arrested at an Internet cafe in the northern Khartoum suburb of Hajj Yusuf after a protest. Witnesses say she was arrested with a Sudanese-American activist, Yousra Abdullah, and a Sudanese journalist, Marwa Al-Tijani.

Ms. Adil’s mother, hundreds of miles away in Cairo, has begun a hunger strike to protest her daughter’s detention.

At press time, Shaima Adil had reportedly arrived in Cairo along with Egypt's president, Mohammad Morsi, on Monday. Her mother, Ibtesam Husseni, has said that she will not break her hunger strike until she sees her daughter..

"I was told by the Sudanese ambassador in Cairo that she will be released on Monday, I will protest until she is back with me," says Ms. Husseni.  

Officially, the Sudanese government refuses to acknowledge the mass protests. On Friday, the police spokesperson, Assir Ahmed Omar, told Reuters that nothing happened today in reference to the protests. 

"There is nothing going on today, no clashes, nothing happening," Reuters quoted Mr. Omar as saying on Friday, after police had fired tear gas on protesters at the Imam Abdel Rahman mosque in Omdurman.

Dalia Haj-Omar, a Sudanese civil society and human rights activist, said that the arrests are making the street angrier.

"The violent reaction of the NCP and the unprecedented number of arrests shows that they are a regime afraid of the future and unable to control the present," said Ms. Haj-Omar.

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