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KHARTOUM, Jul 2 2013 (IPS) - More and more of Sudan’s female politicians and rights activists are being arrested and detained in the government’s clampdown on opposition political parties.
Asma Ahmed, a lawyer and member of the banned Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North (SPLM–N), was released on Jun. 14 after a five-week detention. She believes that the Sudanese authorities are increasingly targeting women because they have become more active in the political and social arena in recent years.
“The targeting of women activists is because we are continuing to send our messages effectively. If we weren’t, we would not be detained … but detentions will not make women less keen to continue activism,” Ahmed told IPS.
The rebel SPLM–N was banned in 2011 when it took up arms against government forces in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
“My house was watched for a few days before my detention. My family was told by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officers that I had been summoned, and so I went to the interrogation in Khartoum north and didn’t return home that day,” Ahmed said.
According to international rights watchdog Amnesty International, Sudan’s 2010 National Security Act, “provides agents of the security services with wide powers of arrest and detention. Torture and other ill-treatment remain widespread.”
In April, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that “in recent months the Sudanese government has increased repression of political and civil society groups. The authorities shut down four civil society groups in December, accusing them of receiving foreign funds, have also closed down Nuba cultural groups, and recently re-instated restrictions on the media.”
It is unclear how many women remain in detention. The Sudanese Council for Defending Rights and Freedoms, an independent body of human rights defenders, lawyers and politicians, stated that the SPLM–N alone has 600 detainees, a significant number of whom are women.
Women are not exempt from the scare tactics used by security services. The events culminating in Entisar Al-Agali’s arrest are almost like a Hollywood action film. She was driving home from a meeting on Jan. 7 when a car belonging to the NISS began following her until she reached Africa Road in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
“They tried to stop my car, but I was speeding and trying to get away. They caught up with me and hit my car from the back and, because I was trying to avoid an accident, I stopped the car,” Al-Agali told IPS.
Al-Agali had returned from Kampala, Uganda where she had been taking part in the talks that led to the drafting of the New Dawn Charter, a document signed by Sudanese opposition political parties, as well as rebel groups and civil society, that deals with the methods to be used to bring down the Sudanese regime and set up a transitional government in the war-torn country.
“I spent 87 days in Omdurman Women’s Prison, 75 days of which were in solitary confinement,” said Al-Agali, who is a leading member of the opposition Socialist Unionist Nasserist Party.
Al-Agali was the only woman to be detained after the signing of the New Dawn Charter on Jan. 6, which saw a wave of arrests of political leaders. She is, however, not the only woman to spend weeks or months in detention in the past two years.
In November 2012, 34 alleged members of SPLM–N, most of whom are government employees, were detained in Kadugli, the capital of the embattled state of Southern Kordofan. On Apr. 26, 14 were released, but the 20 others continue to be held in detention in Kadugli Prison.
Khadija Mohamed Badr was one of the detainees released and she now stays with her family in Khartoum.
“She was severely hurt and broke two spinal discs as she slipped while in detention. She is now paying for treatment with her own money,” an activist who is trying to raise financial assistance for Badr, and who wished to remain anonymous for fear of his safety, told IPS.
Meanwhile, the government National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been trying to establish itself as an advocacy body for political detainees. But Abdelmoniem Mohamed, a human rights lawyer who has monitored the NHRC’s role in other cases, told IPS that it has not been responsive to cases of political oppression, such as that of Jalila Khamis.
“The commission asked us to submit cases to them, cases of political detainees. But I am sceptical as they were slow to act on Khamis’s case,” he told IPS.
Khamis, a teacher and human rights activist, was detained in March 2012 for a video she recorded on the war in her homeland, the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan. Fighting between the Sudanese army and the rebel SPLM–N has been ongoing in the region since June 2011. Khamis had faced life imprisonment but was released in January after a long trial.
“I was subjected to long interrogations, the worst time was when they told me that they would kill my son. This was when I was diagnosed with arterial hypertension,” Khamis told IPS. Although released, she continues to be monitored by state security.
While it is difficult to say how many female political activists are in prison, one activist who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS: “When the family of a detainee in Kosti (a city south of Sudan’s capital Khartoum) visited her in detention, they were given a long list of women’s names to choose from. This means that there are many women detainees we don’t know about.”
Fatima Ghazzali, a pro-democracy activist and journalist working for the political section of Al-Jareeda newspaper said that women were at the forefront of the calls for democracy and freedom in Sudan.
“It is women who are the majority of internally displaced in this country, they bear the brunt of war. Women suffer the most under authoritarian regimes, that is why it does not surprise me to see that women are more keen to have democracy in Sudan,” Ghazzali told IPS, adding that only democracy would give women their full rights and protect them from security forces.
The escalating participation of women activists in recent protests and campaigns has even made the police take notice of women’s participation in calls for democracy, she said.
“They said that women and journalists are always there, always present at protests,” said Ghazzali, who spent time in jail in 2011 for an article she wrote on the gang rape of a female protestor in detention.
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