ICC - Africa Update, Sudan - Khartoum law reform protests

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Opposition says heavy-handed government response to demonstrations highlights need for change.

By Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam, Assadig Musa and Katy Glassborow in Hilversum (AR No 239, 15-Dec-09)

Calls for the repeal of a number of repressive laws, which were introduced almost 20 years ago, have provoked a week of protests in Sudan.

The demonstrations began on December 9, when opposition politicians presented a petition to the national parliament, calling for the amendment of a number of laws still on the statute books which do not conform to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, and interim constitution.

These include legislation which allows security forces to detain suspects and confiscate property; the public order act, used to arrest and punish women for dressing indecently; and a law which established the paramilitary popular defence forces deployed in South Sudan and Darfur.

During the demonstrations held in the capital Khartoum, crowds were dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas. A number of people were arrested and several oppposition leaders were briefly held, including Pagan Amum, Yassir Arman and Abbas Gumma.

Angered by the arrests, demonstrators took to the streets in South Sudan, and even torched offices of the ruling National Congress Party, NCP, in the towns of Rumbek and Wau.

The government says the protesters from opposition parties, including the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, SPLM, failed to obtain the necessary permit to hold the demonstration, as they are required to do under Article 127 of the constitution.

However, Abdel Aziz Sam, legal adviser for Minni Minawi, leader of the Sudanese Liberation Movement, SLM, says that the use of this article to quash the demonstration underscores the need for reforming outdated laws.

"The constitution and CPA, which [the NCP] has accepted and signed, recognises the right to demonstration and gathering, freedom of expression, and all this package of freedoms," Sam said. "But [the NCP] has ignored all that and cracked down on peaceful demonstrations."

Amnesty International denounced the violence and called for all those arrested to either be charged with a recognisable offence or released.

SPLM members claimed they were beaten by police while in custody, but Sudanese information minister and NCP member Kamal Ebied told Al Jazeera television the allegations had no foundation.

The opposition leaders have since been released, and Ebied says the other demonstrators will be freed as soon as the proper legal process has been completed.

General Mohammed al Hafiz, the director of Khartoum police, declined to comment to IWPR about what exactly this legal process was, and whether the detainees will face trial.

"All in all, this is a one-party state; it is not a country of multi-party politics or multi-party democracy," said Dr Abdulla Tiya Juma, deputy of the Khartoum Legislative Council and member of the SPLM. "Only one party has the right to do what it wants. Because of this we are going to carry on, and we will demonstrate until democratic change is achieved in Sudan."

Since 2005, the SPLM, the former southern rebels, have formed an uneasy coalition government alongside the NCP.

Mohmoud Shaarani, a legal expert, said that the whole legal development of Sudan will collapse if a coalition partner is denied the right to discuss amendments to laws.

He added that no individual laws can surpass the interim constitution, which was agreed in 2005 and is the basis of all laws governing the country.

"The right of organising and forming political parties and demonstrating, freedom of expression, [are all] embedded in the interim constitution," he said.

Ebied defended the government's response to the demonstration, saying that it was of paramount importance for security services to provide protection to the public.

In 2005, when former southern rebel leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash, hundreds were killed in riots across the country.

"The police want to make sure that such incidents will not occur again" Elbied said.

Ebied added that it would be better if opposition parliamentarians had stayed within parliament to discuss outstanding issues with NCP members, rather than demonstrating.

The SPLM has also been petitioning parliament to review other laws, including arrangements for the 2011 referendum on autonomy for South Sudan, the national elections next year and border demarcation of regions that are still disputed.

On December 13, some headway seemed to have been made over disputes concerning the referendum bill. Following his release from detention, Amum told reporters that the new bill should be presented to parliament in the coming days.

The article was produced in cooperation with Radio Dabanga (, a radio station for Darfuris run by Darfuris from The Netherlands.

Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam is a Radio Dabanga reporter and IWPR trainee and contributor. Assadig Musa is working with Radio Dabanga. Katy Glassborow is the producer of a new radio show for Radio Dabanga about justice issues, and an IWPR reporter in The Hague.