Monday, March 22, 2010

Sudan: Political repression and rights violations threaten prospects for a free, fair, credible vote

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW) Political repression and other rights violations ahead of the April general elections in Sudan threaten prospects for a free, fair, and credible vote, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch research missions to Sudan from November 2009 to March 2010 found that both the Government of National Unity and the Government of South Sudan are violating rights and restricting freedoms critical to a fair poll, including freedoms of expression and of assembly.

"Conditions in Sudan are not yet conducive for a free, fair, and credible election," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Unless there's a dramatic improvement in the situation it's unlikely that the Sudanese people will be able to vote freely for leaders of their choice."

Human Rights Watch found that Sudanese authorities throughout the country were failing to uphold standards agreed with the African Union in March, which are based on the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Major areas of concern include restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, freedom of the press, and equal access to the media. Human Rights Watch previously documented similar concerns during voter registration in November and December 2009.

In northern Sudan, the national government continues to arrest and detain activists and opposition party members, break up public gatherings, prevent public meetings, and to control the state-owned media – all significant obstacles to free, fair, and credible elections.

In one serious incident on March 14, two armed men in plainclothes abducted Abdallah Mahadi Badawi, an 18-year-old activist with the group Girfina ("We Are Fed Up") in Khartoum, beat him severely, and interrogated him about Girfina's activities. The group has been promoting participation in the elections and speaking out against the ruling National Congress Party, and its members have been arrested on several occasions. Badawi told Human Rights Watch that he believes the men were working for the national security service.

"They used sticks and pipes to beat me on my back and they put a pistol to my head and pretended to shoot it," he told Human Rights Watch. His attackers forced him to sign a promise that he would not participate in political activities and that he would report to them on the group's activities, before releasing him on the same day.

Human Rights Watch also found government repression against the media in Khartoum. While print press has enjoyed more freedom in recent months in Sudan, the Press Council, a government regulatory body, summoned two editors in March regarding articles critical of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

In addition, Human Rights Watch found that political parties do not have equal access to media. Although state-owned media have allocated free airtime to all parties' candidates under the rules of the National Elections Commission's media committee, radio and TV outlets in Khartoum heavily focus their regular programming on the ruling party.

In the embattled western region of Darfur, where government and rebel forces have clashed in recent weeks around Jebel Mara, continued insecurity will be an obstacle to holding free and fair elections. Large areas of Darfur remain inaccessible to election officials and candidates, and insecurity caused by banditry and ongoing conflict has restricted candidates' freedom of movement. In at least two cases in March, opposition party candidates were shot at and robbed.

Al-Bashir is running for reelection while failing to respond to the warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur issued by the International Criminal Court in March 2009.

"President al-Bashir is a fugitive from justice," Gagnon said. "He should be in The Hague answering to charges of heinous crimes committed in Darfur, not flouting Khartoum's obligations to cooperate with the International Criminal Court."

In Southern Sudan, although incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention decreased after the voter registration period in November and December, Human Rights Watch documented several incidents of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detention, and physical assault and torture of members of political parties opposed to the ruling Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) by security forces during the nomination and campaigning period from January to March 2010.

In one incident, on February 18, security officials arrested three members of the opposition party, SPLM-DC – Denis Aywork Yor, Priyjwok Akol Ajawin, and Amjad Angelo Marino – at Juba airport, took them to a nearby military detention center, and questioned them separately for several hours about their political party activities. The men spent the night at the detention center before military officials transferred them to a police station, where they were later released without charge.

Human Rights Watch also found that the media environment in South Sudan has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. For example, on March 3, armed security officials stormed the offices of Bakhita FM, a community-based radio station run by the Catholic Church, and Liberty FM, a private radio station, and arrested the two directors at the stations. The incident occurred after Liberty FM aired an interview with the campaign manager of an independent political candidate in Juba.

"They threatened to shut down our station, confiscate our equipment and bring me before the law if I aired a similar political program," the director of Liberty FM told Human Rights Watch. Police also threatened the director of Bakhita FM and warned her not to air political programs but focus on religious programs instead.

"For a free, fair, and credible election, it is essential that all journalists and media organizations are allowed to operate freely," Gagnon said. "They should be able to do their work without official interference."

Human Rights Watch called on the national and southern Sudanese governments to take urgent steps to uphold and enforce key civil and political rights in the remaining period before the April 11 polls. Human Rights Watch also urged international election observers – currently in the process of deploying around Sudan – to monitor and report on the wider human rights context in which the elections will occur.

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