Victims of Sudan Crackdown on Protests Await Justice

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Sudanese celebrate after officials said the military had forced longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 11, 2019.

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When Sudan’s long-standing president Omar al-Bashir was ousted on April 11, 2019, protesters who had placed their lives on the line hoped this would mark the beginning of a freer and more just Sudan. Two years on, amidst slow progress and complex challenges, protesters, lawyers, and families of victims are understandably concerned over whether justice will ever come for abuses against those protestors.

The former regime responded ruthlessly to protests that began in December 2018 against al-Bashir’s regime, and security forces, notably Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS), used lethal force, including live ammunition, to break up the protests, killing dozens of unarmed protesters.

After the transitional authorities were sworn in they established a range of committees to investigate past abuses. While there is no body to specifically address crimes committed against protesters between December 2018 and April 2019, the attorney-general established a committee in January 2020 to investigate a wide range of abuses including extrajudicial killings, from the beginning of al-Bashir’s rule through to his ousting.

This year has seen some progress on such cases. Prosecutors announced an unknown number of NISS agents have been charged in connection with abuses against protesters. On March 28, a Khartoum court found the crimes committed against peaceful protesters were part of an attack against the civilian population and confirmed for the first time charges of crimes against humanity against another NISS agent for the killing of a protester in December, 2018.

But many challenges remain, some of which will require resources, others mainly political will.

Mahmoud al-Sheikh, a member of the attorney-general’s committee pointed to several challenges undermining their efforts: “We are struggling to get the security forces to cooperate including by providing us with access to crucial evidence or accept requests of lifting immunities of suspects.” Sudan’s criminal law does not recognize command responsibility as a mode of liability, which could hinder the possibility of holding mid-to-top level commanders accountable.

While the justice efforts required in Sudan are ambitious and long-term, this does not mean the government, with international support, cannot take effective, prompt actions to bolster current efforts.  A meaningful justice process should be transparent, and the government should provide regular public updates on the progress in investigations of public interest and guarantee victims and their families effective participation.