Monday, December 24, 2012

Sudan Activists Languish in Jail

MEDANI, Sudan — On June 28, 2011, Mohamed Saleh and Ma'ni Mubarak were attending "Breaths," a three-day cultural forum organized by students at Al-Jazeera University in Medani, 300 kilometers from Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Hailing from Nubia, Mubarak was involved in organizing the section about Nubian heritage and culture, while Saleh attended the performances before leaving in the late afternoon, long before the clashes began.

At about 6 p.m., the students were taking a break before resuming the forum after prayers, when a fight broke out between students from the Islamic Movement and the Democratic Front. The initial scuffle seemed contained, until:
"All of a sudden, I saw students from the Islamic Movement coming towards us with metal rods and trying to break the benches in the cafeteria to use them as weapons," said Nisreen Al-Mamoun, one of the forum's organizers.
Al-Mamoun said that the attackers asked all students to leave the area except for Communist students, in reference to the Democratic Front (DF), which is a student movement affiliated with the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP).
"They dropped a molotov and students started leaving, but the attacks on students already began and I saw people getting injured," said Al-Mamoun, who was a chemical engineering student at the time.
Mubarak was one of the students beaten, as he was one of the most popular characters on campus and a speaker for the DF.
"I was beaten with metal rods and to defend myself, I began throwing bricks at the attackers," said Mubarak, who added that other students were defending themselves by throwing stones and bricks.
Mubarak was unlucky, he was injured and rushed to the hospital, not knowing that more than a year later, he would be behind bars for causing "severe bodily harm" as stipulated under Sudanese criminal law.
The clashes received little media coverage and the students moved on with their lives. Saleh graduated and began applying for jobs.
"A year later, I was in town to attend the fourth memorial of Mutasim Abu Al-As. I was with friends, including Mubarak in a coffee shop, when security officers arrested us," said Saleh, who was in town to get his certificates and documents from the university.
Abu Al-As was a DF student who was stabbed to death in clashes with Islamic Movement's students in 2008 at Al-Jazeera University. Saleh said he was warned by an Islamist student accused in the murder of Abu Al-As to not return to Medani.
"He told me to stay away or else I could get killed," added Saleh.
Student violence has become a norm in Sudan. In 1964, a revolution that toppled the military dictatorship was inspired by the killing of a University of Khartoum student at the hands of the police. However, violence has in the last decade adopted an ugly politicized face with students from rival political factions killing each other.
Student deaths in recent years have exceeded 35, with the majority being due to severe torture by security forces or clashes between Islamic Movement students, who are loyal to the regime, and other students.
"We were detained for two weeks before our friends and lawyers paid 3,000 Sudanese pounds ($600 at the time) to bail us out," said Mubarak recalling the detention last June.
But Mubarak was not released and was instead accused of attacking a security guard at the university.
"In court, the witnesses — who were security agents — were too scared to lie. They ended up contradicting the case and the court declared him innocent," said Hanadi Fadul, an Al-Jazeera University graduate who worked on Mubarak’s case.
In late November, the five students were arrested again and taken to court.
"The witnesses who were students from the government's party contradicted themselves on key points which should've dropped the charges against the students," said Adil Abbas, a lawyer who is part of the student's defense team.
Abbas added that although Saleh was not there, the court deviously built its case on the fact that he did not clearly say that he was not there during his court hearing.
"The students when attacked have the legal right to defend themselves," added Abbas, in reference to the accusation that Mubarak caused harm to students by throwing bricks at them.
Five lawyers worked on this case including Abbas and Fadul to divide the work load. Fadul was responsible for defending a student charged with stabbing a student.
"My defense was simple, he suffers from dwarfism and he has to stand on a table in order to stab a tall person in the stomach. He is also incapable of holding the huge knife they claimed he used," said Fadul. He added that, legally, only medical reports from a government hospital were accredited by the court, but this time, the court accepted a report from a private hospital, which is against the law.
In prison, the students receive visits from their friends who bring them food and keep them company in an attempt to make their one-year sentence more bearable.
"The food they serve, even birds cannot eat it," said Mubarak who added that their cell has 50 prisoners.
Nisreen Al-Mamoun, who is a close friend to both students, brings them food each week.
"Two days before they were sentenced to a year in court, Saleh was hired in his dream job at the Ministry of Agriculture," said Al-Mamoun.
Mubarak's younger brother, Mohamed, told Al-Monitor of his anger at his brother’s sentence while en route to Medani from Kharoum. "I'm going to see my brother, I cannot accept this sentence, it is very unfair, he does not deserve a year," said Mohamed.
Last week, four students from Al-Jazeera University were found dead after they went missing following a public forum discussing fee exemption for Darfuri students.
Their colleagues and human rights activists allege that the students were tortured to death by security forces, however, the university and the police stated that they drowned in a sewage pond not far from the university.
Their deaths inspired a wave of protests in many cities across the country calling for retribution and the removal of the Sudanese government.

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Remembering Mohamed Abdel-Salam in Medani

"We enter the university with pens and notepads, but from now on we will enter with machetes to protect ourselves."
On August 3, 1998, a law student at the University of Khartoum called Mohamed Abdelsalam, was detained by security forces after taking part in protests against the rise in accommodation and educationfees. 
The next day, Mohamed Abdelsalam's parents were told that their son died during clashes between the police and students. An autopsy, however showed that the cause of death is, "brain haemorrhage" due to repeated beatings about the head and Abdelsalam's parents, tragically, saw their son's body covered with bruises.
Abdelsalam was from Medani and I thought about him on the way to Medani last Friday after hearing news of two students who died in security custody shortly after they were detained. And his face with the classic glasses, a face I only saw in pictures, came to my mind a few times even after coming back from Medani.  
Abdelsalam and two others were detained after going to the storage room of the Student Fund and distributing mattresses, lamps and used fans that the fund was not giving to poor students who have come from all parts of Sudan to study.
He just didn't want his fellow students to sleep on the floor and not have a lamp in their rooms if they wanted to study at night.  
In Medani, fourteen years later, two students were found dead in a pond on Friday after taking part in protests and participating in a forum against the university's decision to make Darfuri students pay fees.
Students for Darfur have been exempted from fees since 2006 and in the 2011 Darfur peace agreement signed in Qatar, article 14 states that students whose families are in internally displaced person (IDPs) camps or are refugees are in turn exempted from fees 
Sadly, due to an administrative problem they have no hand in, the students could not prove they qualify, they did not have the right documents.
Two students were lying in the morgue when I reached Medani and by Sunday, four students were dead. Their colleagues accuse the security force of torturing them to death as they went missing in their custody.  
The police and the university issued a statement detailing how the students drowned in the sewage pond their bodies were found in. Their colleagues say that the pond is 1 meter deep making it impossible for them to drown.
Yesterday in a public forum, a student activist said what will forever be remembered by the attendees," We enter the university with pens and notepads, but from now on we will enter with machetes to protect ourselves."
The machetes are a clear reference to the security agents who attacked students in a university in Khartoum state a few days ago. 
Abdelsalam was not the first student to be killed by security agents for standing up for student rights and the four students killed last week will probably not be the last.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Citizen Journalism in Sudan Shakes Up Media

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On May 18, a Sudanese special police force attacked a village tucked away in the Nuba Mountains, a story which could have easily gone unnoticed.
Last month, citizen journalism group Nuba Reports gained access to a video documenting the brutal attack on the village of Gardud al-Badry. The footage, apparently collected on a mobile phone by officers from the central reserve police, made national and international headlines.

ُThe Nuba Mountains lie in Southern Kordofan, a border state with South Sudan. It has been the site of recurrent conflict since June 2011, after the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) complained that local elections were rigged.

Ryan Boyette
© Nuba Reports
Ryan Boyette, founder of the Nuba reports project, said he was determined to report on the human rights atrocities. He noted that many crimes went unreported, for example during the second Sudanese civil war, which raged from 1983 to 2005.

“While I was in the Nuba Mountains where I worked for the last ten years, I heard many stories of what happened here during the last war, but the media was not able to come here to report whats happening,” Boyette told The Niles.

Boyette decided to change that. He created a media team from friends and aspiring local journalists to shine a spotlight on the humanitarian situation unfolding in the Nuba Mountains. Spurred by their conviction, these reporters embark on long trips to confirm reports, witness events and talk to eyewitnesses.

They collected stories which would not otherwise make it into the international headlines. Most reporters do not venture into the Nuba Mountains due to government restrictions, an ongoing deadly conflict and the region’s challenging geography.

The authenticity of citizen reporters’ information can be difficult to prove, an issue that Boyette tackles by geographically pinning down his information. “We only report what we have witnessed ourselves and what we can confirm. We confirm pictures with GPS, every picture we take is tagged with GPS coordinates,” he explains.

And although global news organisations are aware that footage filmed on mobile phones can be staged or manipulated, appetite is growing for reports from areas which are challenging for news agencies to reach.

© Nuba ReportsThe citizen reporter’s video about the destruction of Gardud al-Badry eventually made its way to Reuters news agency and elsewhere. The footage, subtitled by Nuba Reports, was widely circulated by Sudanese social media activists.

Similarly, in an article published earlier this week, AFP used a testimony from Nuba Reports which stated that the plane shot down by the SPLM-N is probably the same plane that dropped bombs in a market in Kauda in Southern Kordofan State last week.

This new stream of information is filling gaps in Sudan’s traditional media coverage. It has arrived on the scene at a time when the national press is heavily censored and newspapers face pre-publication and post-publication controls. Reporters without Borders ranks Sudan at a lowly 170 out of 179 on its press freedom index.

Since last year, more than ten newspapers were shut down and over 20 journalists were forced to stop writing by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

Najla Seed-Ahmed, a citizen journalist famed for her Youtube videos says: “I had the idea of using a camera during the Sudanese Women’s Union conference in 2009. I realised that many pressing problems in Sudan are not documented.”

Over the next few years, Najla recorded thousands of videos documenting human rights abuses, poverty, strikes and other pressing issues in Sudan, founding Sudan’s most popular Youtube channel. The channel has 651 subscribers and over 900.000 video views.

© Nuba ReportsBut her honeymoon period of online freedom came to an abrupt end. In January 2012, Seed-Ahmed’s house was raided and her cameras and laptop were confiscated. She documented this raid in a video that went viral alongside the message that she will not stop reporting.

In April, Seed-Ahmed was summoned a number of times for interrogations and in June, when protests broke out in Sudan, she was detained every day, a plan which she said was designed to “prevent her from documenting the events”.

In July, Seed-Ahmed was forced to flee Sudan with her husband and four children. A number of videos she recorded about the conflict in Southern Kordofan resulted in a criminal case brought up against her by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) that carry the death penalty or a minimum of three years in detention.

Najla Seed-Ahmed was forced to move but she inspired others to follow in her footsteps and become citizen journalists.

“I was inspired by Najla Seed-Ahmed and while watching her videos, I wondered why others are not doing the same,” says a young engineer who created Sawt al-Sudan (Voice of Sudan), an online radio station that turned into a Youtube channel a few months ago.

Ahmed added that Syrian citizen journalists also inspire him because they put their lives at risk to show the world what is happening on their doorstep.

Usama MohamedUsing an iPhone, he filmed the anti-government protests in June and July. His Youtube channel became a hit and his footage was aired by national and international news agencies and websites.

However, Sudan’s citizen reporters run the risk of detention and repression. Usama Mohamed, who uses Twitter and Storify to document political and social issues in Sudan, was featured on The Stream, a popular program on Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel that follows Twitter for topics, interviews and debate. After the appearance, he was detained by security services.

Another active Twitter user who wished to remain anonymous told The Niles that security forces identified him during an anti-government protest: “A security officer asked me if it was me,” the protester told The Niles. “I realised that I was recognised from my Twitter profile picture.”

My friends..... sometimes rebel

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In Sudan, you don't have to be in the war zones to meet a rebel. It just so happened that the brother of a friend of a friend of mine had a friend who was friends with Mohamed Ibrahim*. 

We met in a popular cafe in Al-Fasher in North Darfur and sat on awkwardly small chairs sipping sugary tea and drinking tap water which they believe is better for your health than bottled water and talking about Sudan and its never ending problems.

Ibrahim who joined the group later began telling me about his years in the battlefields with the Sudan Liberation Movement. 

Ibrahim is soft-spoken with a charming smile and likes tucking in his shirt, but the obvious scar below his right eye looks like it is the result of a very dangerous and difficult story. 

He spent two years wandering the deserts of Darfur, it was him, his truck and his gun. At times, he was joined by an American postgraduate student. He told me his name and asked me to find him online.  "You have to find him, he was my friend," he said.  

I met Ibrahim a few months ago in North Darfur where I spending sometime just out of curiosity.
The last time I was in Darfur was in 1990 when I was a year old and my father was working there.  
This was before it became known to the world as a place of extreme war, displacement and misery. 

At that time, my father was a senior civil servant and our house along with four other houses had more allocated time for electricity than any other house in North Darfur. 

I needed a change of scene, so I took a plane to Al-Fasher. The owner of the aviation company was so shocked that I was going to Darfur he told my cousin who works there that I should get a free ticket.  
I found myself in that cafe with Ibrahim, his friends and a tall guy who coincidentally was sitting next to me on the plane and was a witness to me fainting and throwing up due to turbulence.

The friend of a friend's brother invited me to his sister's house for breakfast. There, I met his brother who returned from fighting with the rebels as his wife was due to give birth. The young man himself was preparing to go the desert. I politely declined the invitation to join the rebel fighters as a fighter. I fight with my words (or laptop) not a gun. 

But Ibrahim is now a different man. He left the rebels and decided to join the non-violent struggle for democracy. The dilemma in spending years fighting a government or a country is, you eventually forgot your cause. You begin fighting because you don't have a way out of this or because you are used to fighting.

This week, I briefly met the friend of my friend's brother in Darfur and asked him if he is back to the armed struggle. He said yes, the struggle is ongoing even if there is a political resolution. I cannot imagine him, a law student, holding a gun.