women groups

Concerns over detained Sudanese journalist who could face death penalty

05:15 P

Wednesday 29 September 2021

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) expresses its ‘utmost concern’ over the physical safety and wellbeing of Otaf Abdelwahab El Tom, journalist and director of the El Naba Centre for Press Services, who was arrested by police forces at his home and taken to El Mogran Police Station in Khartoum on September 22.

In a statement published yesterday, the organisation called on Sudanese authorities “to guarantee his physical and psychological integrity, and ensure a fair trial according to the regional and international standards including access to lawyer and family visit”.

El Tom was arrested and charged under articles 50, ‘Undermining the Constitutional system’, and article 51. ‘Waging war against the state’, of the Criminal Code 1991. Both crimes carry a penalty of death or life imprisonment.

According to the ACJPS, reliable information indicates that his arrest is solely based on the suspicion that El Tom ‘coordinated’ with members of the ousted National Congress Party of former dictator Omar Al Bashir to undermine the constitutional order in the country.

His family has not been able to visit him and they do not know where he is being detained, the organisation wrote.

“The lack of access for family members to the detainee, together with the well-documented use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees by Sudanese security agencies and the police force, particularly whilst held in unknown locations, gives rise to serious concerns for his safety”, the ACJPS states.

Incommunicado detention, where the location is unknown and no visits are allowed, significantly enhances detainees’ vulnerability to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The organisation further argued that the practice is in breach of Sudan’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, “in particular the prohibition under Article 5 of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment and treatment”.

'Sudanese authorities are using sweeping criminal provisions that carry heavy penalties to harass and intimidate activists including journalists from conducting their work' - ACJPS

Repression of journalists

The arrest and detention of El Tom is the latest development in a growing list of prosecutions of journalists and human rights defenders in Sudan.

“Sudanese authorities are using sweeping criminal provisions that carry heavy penalties to harass and intimidate activists including journalists from conducting their work”, the ACJPS wrote.

Earlier this month, human rights activists and journalists were arrested and detained after criticising the Rapid Support Forces, under the command of Transitional Sovereignty Council Vice-Chairman Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo.

Last month, a journalist was beaten senseless by uniformed military personnel. In the past, journalist Ali El Dali was frequently harassed and detained by members of the Al Bashir dictatorship.

In March this year, ACJPS reported that activist Khadeeja El Deweihi was charged with publishing false news under Art 24 of the 2018 Cybercrime Act, based on her Facebook post that tackled the health situation in Sudan.

In February, the editor and owner of Alwan newspaper, El Masaa Radio, and satellite TV channel Omdurman Hussein Khojali was detained after being accused of committing “crimes against the state”. Such ‘trumped-up political charges’ often lack legitimacy and violate several rights and freedoms, ACJPS stated.

In October 2020, six young artists were charged with disturbance of public peace and public nuisance for chanting revolutionary slogans inside jail cells. In 2019, ACJPS documented several human rights defenders and activists detained for actual or suspected participation in peaceful protests.

Journalists protest after the attack on their colleague Ali El Dali by army officers
in August this year (social media)

In the past two years, after the revolution, security forces in Sudan have closed down newspapers, TVs, and radio stations, arrested journalists, and dismissed 79 journalists from their jobs at the state-owned media without paying them their end-of-service compensations.

Press freedom

Sudan still ranks 159 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index rankings of this year.

Newspapers in Sudan still operate under the repressive 2009 law that “the former regime put in place to protect itself” and to “silence mouths and deny press freedom”, according to the Sudanese Journalists Union (SJU).

The repressive 2009 law enables strict state control over the press and journalism with licensing powers, approval powers, heavy fines, and criminal sanctions for media outlets and journalists. This means that newspapers of affiliates of the former regime can continue to operate, obtain the largest share of government advertisements, publish negatively about the revolution and the transitional period, and not be held accountable.

During the dictatorship of Omar Al Bashir, Sudan was one of the world’s most hostile terrains for journalists. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) enforced the regime’s censorship, frequently arresting journalists and shutting down newspapers or confiscating issues.

Sudanese authorities still face criticism over their treatment of journalists and social media activists. Today, Radio Dabanga reported that a retired police officer and social media activist was detained and abused by members of the Military Intelligence (MI).