Sudan’s military leaders responsible for the October 25, 2021 takeover should respect and protect the rights of all Sudanese people, including the right to life and peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. Military leaders, who have since dissolved the transitional government and imposed a state of emergency, should refrain from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, immediately free political leaders and others arbitrarily detained, and restore communications.
In the early hours of October 25, media outlets reported that security forces had arrested at least five ministers, as well as other officials and political leaders. The military reportedly placed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest and moved him and his wife to an unrevealed location. By midday, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairperson of the Sovereign Council – a collective presidency body comprised of both civilians and military leaders – announced in a televised speech that he was installing a state of emergency and was dissolving both the cabinet of ministers and the sovereign council.
“The military junta should not jeopardize the sacrifices and hard work of Sudanese from all walks of life for a fairer, more rights-respecting Sudan,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The military authorities should instruct security forces to fully respect and protect the people’s right to protest and that any members using excessive force will be promptly held to account.”
As the news of the takeover broke on social media in the early hours of the morning, multiple pro-democracy groups including the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of professional organizations that spearheaded 2018-19 protests, called on people to protest to defend their “revolution.” The heavy presence of security forces, most from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has been reported patrolling various parts of the capital.
According to medical sources, three protesters were killed by gunshots. About 80 were reportedly wounded. Two protesters told Human Rights Watch that protesters near the Sudan Armed Forces headquarters in Khartoum were met with live ammunition.
Access to internet connectivity and mobile and text messaging communications have been severely disrupted, at least in Khartoum. Access to timely and accurate information, particularly at such a sensitive time, is key and officials should never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to stop the flow of information or to infringe on people’s ability to express political views, Human Rights Watch said.
Sudan’s transitional authorities have been in power since popular protests brought an end to Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule and paved the way for a July 2019 power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians. It was tasked with dealing with an inherited legacy of repression and abuse in addition to a hard-hitting economic crisis.
The takeover risks precipitating a reversal of the small but important gains made over the course of the last two years under the now-dissolved transitional government, Human Rights Watch said.
During the transition, Sudan has ratified key international treaties. The authorities have pursued 11 cases involving killings of protesters by government forces that are now before the courts.
Yet, impunity for security force abuses remains widespread. The military authorities have refused to cooperate in the securing of evidence or lifting of immunity in several investigations. In restive Darfur, despite the October 2020 peace agreement, the authorities have failed to deliver security or justice. Violence in January and April, in al-Geneina, the capital of west Darfur, left over 300 people dead, forced thousands to flee their homes, and resulted in massive property destruction.
The military takeover follows weeks of mounting political tension. Military leaders blamed their civilian counterparts for what the authorities described as a coup attempt on September 21. Efforts by civilian members of government to embark on security sector reform triggered a severe backlash from the military, including by al-Burhan. The military stopped participating in joint meetings with civilian members following the attempt, which delayed the approval of a Cabinet of Ministers’ decision to hand over al-Bashir and two others to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A group of civilians and some former rebels started a sit-in in front of the presidential palace on October 16, calling for the dissolution of Hamdok’s cabinet and for a military takeover. In apparent response, thousands of pro-democracy supporters took to the streets on October 21, reiterating their calls for civilian rule, and demanding expedited reform and implementation of a justice agenda.
Under the transitional charter agreed upon in July 2019, the military would chair the Transitional Council for 21 months, followed by 18 months of civilian leadership. The agreement was later amended by the Juba Peace Agreement, which added an additional year to the transition period. Diverging interpretations over the handover of the chairmanship of the transitional council also contributed to mounting tensions.
Sudan’s security forces, including the RSF, have a well-documented record of abuses, including during protests. On June 3, 2019, and in the following days while the country was ruled by a Transitional Military Council, security forces led by the RSF brutally dispersed a sit-in in Khartoum, killing over 120 protesters, injuring hundreds, and committing sexual violence, and cracked down against protesters elsewhere in the capital and other cities. The security forces also disrupted internet access for weeks and have continued to use excessive, including lethal, force against protesters.
Multiple international actors, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, had in recent days made clear their support for Sudan’s civilian transition. The international community should not only press Sudan’s military leaders to respect rights, but they should also urge them to ensure that they will not damage or reverse the progress on a reform agenda, Human Rights Watch said.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher right now,” Segun said. “Sudan’s international and regional partners need to make clear that small but important steps towards redress for past harm and establishing a more positive rights framework should not be lost. They should rigorously monitor the rights situation on the ground, pressing the military immediately to release all political detainees and to end arbitrary limits on key rights.”