Sudan: A coup against justice

January 31, 2022
Demonstration against military dictatorship in Sudan. Photo: Gwenaelle Lenoir
Protesting the military dictatorship in Sudan. Photo: Gwenaëlle Lenoir

Three months after the October 25 coup, the junta in power in Khartoum is faced with revolt from a new sector of Sudanese society: the judiciary. While it is not all the judiciary, it is enough to worry the coup generals, if only because it shows that a significant number of state officials are resisting and rebelling.

A statement issued on January 20 by 55 judges, including four from the Supreme Court, accused the military brass of being responsible for extra-judicial killings and “heinous violations against unarmed demonstrators”. They added that they would take the necessary measures to protect citizens, but did not specify.

They are supported by more than 220 prosecutors, who have announced that they will stop work from January 20. Their reason is again the security forces’ exactions against demonstrators, and they are calling for an end to the state of emergency in force since the coup.

Public statements by judges are very rare in Sudan, and are also risky for the signatories. Since the putsch, the military has dismissed civil servants appointed by the civilian government during the transition and has given key posts to men from the regime of deposed President Omar al-Bashir. This is being done quietly in the ministries considered strategic: finance and justice. All levels of the judiciary are involved, in the federal states as well as in the central administration.

A month after the coup, the Sovereign Council, the body that was supposed to oversee the democratic transition and which is now entirely controlled by the coup leaders, announced two important appointments: the chief of justice, who heads the judiciary, and the public prosecutor. Abdelaziz Fathal al-Rahman and Khalifa Ahmed Khalifa are well-known Islamists and al-Bashir’s men. Both positions had previously remained vacant. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, as head of the Sovereign Council, had blocked these appointments, refusing to endorse the names proposed by his civilian partners, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition.

“They are clamping down on everything,” bitterly remarks a lawyer from Darfur who prefers to remain anonymous. “We find ourselves facing the same magistrates as under the regime of al-Bashir”.

Judicial reforms suspended

Justice, in the broad sense, has always been an obsession of the generals, who fear being one day dragged before national or international courts. They all served under al-Bashir, participating in abuses against the people and the repression of opponents. First among them is General Al-Burhan, former army chief of staff, who served in Darfur at the height of the war, notably as head of the border guards, which later evolved into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) linked to the Janjaweed militia. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemetti, who is the current head of the RSF and number two in the Sovereign Council, has similar fears.

As long as the top position in the Sovereign Council, the body overseeing the democratic transition, was held by a military officer – in this case, General Al-Burhan – the top brass could play for time. But according to the Constitutional Declaration of August 2019 at the beginning of the transition, this position was to revert to a civilian in November 2021.

The transfer of power did not take place. “Delaying the transfer of the Sovereign Council leadership to civilians is one of the major reasons for the coup,” confirms legal expert Suliman Baldo, an advisor to the NGO Enough Project. “If it had taken place, legal issues would certainly have advanced: on the control of the economy; on the International Criminal Court; and on their alleged responsibility in the Khartoum massacre of June 3, 2019.”

At dawn on June 3, 2019, security forces violently broke up a large sit-in that had been staged for two months by pro-democracy protesters in front of the army headquarters. Various security forces took part in the attack, including members of the RSF, Khartoum’s auxiliaries during the war in Darfur. At least 127 people died, dozens disappeared, hundreds were injured, bodies were thrown into the Nile, and people were gang raped. The trauma is lasting and people are calling for justice.

Tightening a grip on the judiciary has not been difficult: after two years of democratic transition, reform of the judiciary was still in its infancy. “The State’s influence goes deep and many in all sectors of the judiciary owe their positions to their Islamist sympathies or their proximity to the NCP, Omar al-Bashir’s party,” explains Baldo. “Al-Burhan will therefore have no difficulty finding security and civilian cadres to manage the security of his regime and the state.”

This is especially the case since, in the wake of last October’s coup, General Al-Burhan changed the composition of the Sovereign Council, expelling the five members of the FFC coalition and replacing them with civilians under his thumb. The government was dissolved and the one he formed on January 20, with great difficulty, is composed of bureaucrats with no political stature or with ties to the former regime.

Investigation committees dissolved

Among the first decisions taken by the coup leaders was the dissolution of the committees investigating the actions of the former regime, in particular the one on the events of June 3, 2019, chaired by lawyer Nabil Adib. “The generals were very worried about the conclusions of his report, which was due to come out soon,” says Kholood Khair, executive director of the think tank Insight Partners in Khartoum. 

The investigation was dragging on. Survivors and families of the victims, as well as some political parties, were accusing the government of obstruction. In fact, it was the military component of the government that was organizing a general policy of obstruction. “All those who worked in the committees set up to investigate the former regime faced obstacles of all kinds,” says Mamoun Farouk, a lawyer and head of an anti-corruption committee. “For example, operating funds were never released. The Ministry of Finance gave the order, but the order was never signed at the demand, always verbal, of the military in the Sovereign Council. Weary of fighting, we paid for everything out of our own pockets, but that slowed down the procedures.”

“Finding premises was also a challenge,” continues this former candidate for Attorney General. “We would find a house, a building, and the next day the owner would change his mind, or the Sovereign Council would pre-empt it for its own needs. This happened in particular to the June 3 investigation committee. They moved into the Sudan Airways training centre. Everyone knows that Sudan Airways does not have a single plane. And suddenly, after three months, the company needed its centre to train its stewards and pilots! Today, the buildings are still unoccupied…”

“We have completed some investigations,” said Farouk. But the prosecutor’s offices in Nyala [capital of South Darfur state] and those in Zalinjei [capital of Central Darfur] were burned. We don’t know who set fire to them in these criminal incidents, we just know that it was armed men. As a result, no one has been brought to justice either for the crimes in Darfur or in the Nuba Mountains. This gives the perpetrators a sense of impunity, and the population the impression that the civilians in power did nothing. In fact, it is the military that has prevented the judicial process.”

Putting a brake on the ICC

The recent coup by the generals was thus just the culmination of two years of constant obstruction and pretence in all areas of justice, including international justice. In mid-December, a month and a half after the putsch, a delegation from the International Criminal Court (ICC) visited Khartoum. The objective was, once again, to discuss the transfer to The Hague of the three defendants claimed by the ICC and imprisoned in the Kober prison in Khartoum: former president al-Bashir, his former minister of defence Abdelrahim Hussein, and former minister of state for humanitarian affairs Ahmed Haroun.

In a statement to journalists in North Darfur, Al-Hadi Idriss, a member of the Sovereign Council, nonetheless asserted unabashedly on December 14 that the Sudanese authorities remained committed “to handing over to the ICC those who have perpetuated crimes in Darfur, in accordance with what is enshrined in the Juba Peace Agreement,” signed in October 2020 between the Khartoum government and a coalition of rebel movements, the Sudan Revolutionary Front.

The delegation led by prosecutor Karim Khan returned to the ICC empty-handed, and it is a safe bet that they will have to wait.

[Abridged from]

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