Saturday, June 21, 2014

Freedom to Hassan Ishaq, the journalist and my friend

Dear Hassan,

It took me two days to really comprehend that you were really arrested. Minutes after your arrest, a friend posted the news on Facebook, he only wrote "Hassan Ishaq was arrested".I asked if it is Hassan the journalist. 

I did what any person not in their right mind would do, I called both of your numbers, it is a stupid move I reckon , but something many of us do when we hear that someone was arrested. It is almost our way of trying to confirm that the arrest didn't take place or that you managed to escape.
A few days later, by coincidence, I found a notebook while organizing my writing notebooks. I flipped the pages to see what I was writing in 2012 and found two pages full of notes about you. It was an attempt at documenting that you were summoned by the NISS in mid 2012 for your articles and the threats you received. To the bottom right, I had asked you for your family's numbers …just in case! 

I called your sister , telling her I am Hassan's friend and I just wanted to see how they are doing. She did not know about your arrest Hassan. She told me that you had a work mission in Al-Nuhud then vanished, your phone has been off for days. I just could not tell her , I told her yes you have been MIA and I would contact her if I find out something.
Someone must have told her and I am glad it didn't have to be me, she called me the next day and told me the news and asked if you will be released soon and if you will be tortured. I told her that you are okay, even though I knew about the torture and that you were taken to the hospital.

I met Hasan in 2012,  I worked at Al-Jareeda newspaper for a few months, supervising a weekly file in the English language and Hassan was collaborating with the newspaper at the time. Ishaq was very disciplined in his work, he was a real journalist and produced exceptional work with the little resources he had. The newspaper paid very low salaries, barely enough to cover transportation and breakfast money, but Hassan went out of his way to cover sensitive human rights cases. When no one was writing about the detention of the University of Khartoum students or the detention of Dr. Bushra Gamar or the crackdown on the media, Ishaq was contacting families, lawyers and activists and pushing very strong pieces to get published.
Hassan would write his article in his notebook then type them when a laptop or a computer becomes available at the newspaper as he did not have a personal laptop. 

He was born to be a journalist, always chasing news that mattered to him, talking to people and researching stories on the internet. 

Hassan resigned from Al-Jareeda newspaper after he was summoned by NISS in April 2012. He was asked by the editor to "water-down his daring writings" and he just couldn't get himself to do it. 

As a colleague working in the newspaper field, my advise was to keep working at the newspaper to keep a stable income and do freelance work for websites that respected his daring writings. He continued working as a journalist, sending his writings to Sudanese websites which published his work for no pay at all. To make ends meet, he worked all kinds of jobs, in an oven in the market in his neighborhood, brick-laying in construction sites…everything to continue writing.

In July 2012, during the trial of his friend, Rudwan Dawood, Hassan was arrested while covering the controversial trial. He was beaten, robbed of his phone and precious press card.

He returned to Al-Hasahisa to stay with his family. I once told him over the phone, just work as a farmer Hassan, if they don't publish your work, then they don't deserve to have you as a writer. In Al-Hasahisa, Hassan worked different jobs to make it day-to-day, his most precious possession was his notepads and pens, he would write op-ed and articles that he would email me, eventually, he was getting published in Sudanese websites, again, he was not getting paid. If only they knew how you struggled to write at the end of a long day after working in the hot sun to support your family. 
You were getting stressed and sad, once you told me, I am embrassed from my family, I can not defend my profession anymore. 

Hassan was arrested on Tuesday 10 June 2014 at Al-Nuhud while on assignment for Al-Jareeda newspaper, he was tortured and had to go to the hospital for medications as stated by a lawyer working on his case.

Hassan and others were arrested under the Emergency Laws of West Kordofan state which gives the authorities the right to keep someone for up to six months without charges. The lawyer said that he does not even have a copy of the emergency laws to understand what it entails.

I miss you Hassan. Freedom to Hassan and freedom to his daring writings. 

Sudan protest victims still seeking justice

At around 3 p.m. on the extraordinarily hot afternoon of May 28, Sara Abdel-Bagi's mother stood in front of the Bahri court complex in shock and in tears. In the middle of the street, with one hand in the air, she screamed, "There is no god but God, there is no justice for my daughter." The other hand clutched her thobe, the local Sudanese customary attire, as it kept collapsing on the road.
Women and men from Abdel-Bagi's family, together with activists who attended the court session, formed a straight line and closed the street, holding signs with pictures of martyrs who fell during the September 2013 protests in Sudan. Some read, "We will not forget, we will not forgive."
The September protests, also referred to as Sudan Revolts 2.0, began in Medani, the capital of Al-Jazeera state before it spread to Khartoum state and elsewhere. The protests came after President Omar Bashir announced the removal of fuel and gas subsidies. The protests quickly grew bloody, with Amnesty International estimating that 210 protesters had been killed by government forces.
Hundreds were arrested during the protests and dozens remain in prison with ongoing trials for their participation. In January 2014, Bashir called for a national dialogue with opposition parties. Some parties, such as Umma, the largest opposition party, and the Islamist Popular Congress Party,joined the call for dialogue, but Umma suspended the dialogue after its leader was arrested by the national security forces in May.
The judge adjudicating the trial of Sara's murder concluded that "there is confusion and contradictions in the testimonies of the witnesses," and ordered that Sami Mohamed Ahmed, a former soldier accused of shooting Sara Abdel-Bagi to death, be freed.
After the court adjourned, the scene was chaotic. Sara's sister Eiman, a journalist, was held back by family members as she kicked down a traffic triangle while her aunt chanted, "One million martyrs for a new dawn." Tearful activists holding signs were screamed at by armed riot police who waved their clubs at them, threatening to use force while plainclothes security officers grabbed the signs and shoved them into a plastic bag. One protester told Al-Monitor, "He put the posters with the martyr's pictures in a trash bag."
On Sept. 25, 2013, Sara Abdel-Bagi left her house in distress with her sister for her uncle's house, only a few meters away, to attend her 15-year-old cousin’s funeral. Her cousin, Suhaib Mohamed Musa, had been shot dead while participating in the fourth day​ of the mass protests
Abdel-Bagi never made it to her cousin's funeral; she was shot right in front of her house. When she reached the hospital, there was no specialist to treat her and she died, Eiman told Al-Monitor. Her family struggled to cope with the aftermath. Just reaching the court was a challenge on its own.
"We received everything from threats to total refusal to even open a complaint against [the soldier] Ahmed. Many discouraged us and said there will be no justice," said Abdel-Bagi's aunt Fatima al-Amin, also an activist.
It took 67 days for the police to arrest Ahmed, even after he was named by witnesses in court on Oct. 9, 2013. There were 12 witnesses in total, with five testifying that they saw him shoot her, according to the documentation submitted by the family's lawyer to the court and seen by Al-Monitor.
One witness. who is related to Ahmed, said that he was the only one dressed in civilian clothes who was armed in the area, and that he saw him shoot her.
"Even one of the defense witnesses reiterated the testimonies of our witnesses and put him in that location at that time," said Amin.
According to Amin, Ahmed also shot dead another young man in their neighborhood, Al-Doroshab North. His family, along with the family of Musa, waited for the results of Abdel-Bagi's case before they took action. 
For Mutasim al-Haj, Abdel-Bagi's lawyer, the fight is not over.
"We will take the case to the court of appeals, then to the high court and then to the constitutional court. If no justice prevails, we will take our case to the African court," Haj told Al-Monitor.
Following Ahmed's trial, Haj was interrogated by security personnel for 2 ½ hours.
"I was told that I instigated the people to hold signs and conduct the protest in front of the court and that I am not practicing law, I am doing political work," said Haj, adding that he, along with other lawyers, will write a memorandum detailing this violation to the Lawyers Syndicate.
Another mother of a protester who was killed during the protest, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor that so far she has been unable to file a complaint and take her son's case to court.
"I am a widow and when I went to the police station to file a complaint, I was told that as a woman, I need a blood kin to do this. Although I am his mother, I had to get his uncle's permission," she said, adding that even when she complied, they still refused to take her complaint. She is working with a lawyer to bring her son's case to court.
Sideeg Yousif, the head of the National Committee for Solidarity with the Families of Martyrs and Wounded, said that families who lost loved ones during the September protests face many problems. "The police will never open a complaint for them against the national security, which is the accused body. It will open a complaint against an unknown assailant," Yousif told Al-Monitor. He added that all families received a permit to bury the bodies, but no medical reports or autopsies.
"If you have no medical report and most importantly Form Eight (a police form documenting physical harm), it is difficult to file a complaint. Most families were denied Form Eight, but in usual cases, the police require it even before you get medical attention," Yousif said.
By the end of 2013, the Sudanese government estimated that 80 people lost their lives in the protests after insisting that only 34 had died until a month after the protests. 
The justice minister has formed a committee led by the chairman of the General Prosecution Office of Omdurman, Babiker Gashi, to investigate the events of September 2013, but the committee has yet to present any findings. In fact, in May an official at the Ministry of Justice denied that a committee had ever been formed in the first place.
Amin continues to advocate for her niece and other martyrs, but others have questions that remain unanswered.
One young activist who wished to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, "On Sept. 25, I joined a protest in Al-Fatehab in Omdurman. When we reached the Mohandiseen roundabout, there were no police, but then new forces that we never saw before appeared and shot live bullets."
The activist said that the scene was chaotic while they recovered fallen protesters. One body, that of a secondary-school student named Salem, was carried away by the protesters and that sparked another protest. The activist said, "The forces came again and when they opened live fire and tear gas, people ran for cover. When we were conscious again, the bed we were carrying was empty — Salem's body was taken."
Salem's story is one of many, and further proof that the crackdown on protesters in September 2013 needs independent investigation.

Published @

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mariam Yahia's Story

Mariam Yahia, a mother in her 20s is currently facing apostasy and adultery charges under Sudan's Criminal Law of 1991. Yahia is accused of leaving Islam and converting to Christianity in a complaint brought against her by a family claiming to be her direct family. Mariam's story unleashed a war in Sudan where one side views itself as guarding Islam from the other side, the infidels. Although the war could be viewed as a religious one, it is in fact political, Maryam by staying firm on her position to remain a Christian put the entire Islamist project in jeopardy, a young woman has stood against a patriarchal judiciary system that has its laws tailored specifically to punish women and a political system that doesn't accept religious diversity.
On Thursday 15th of May, I sat in a cramped court house at Al-Haj Yousif Court Complex in Khartoum North, the court house had more people standing than sitting and dozens were standing in front of the court house, knocking its wooden door every few seconds only to be told that they can not be allowed in. Mariam Yahia was locked inside the defendant's cage with a bearded sheikh who represented the Sudan Scholars Council.
We waited for at least half an hour only for the bearded sheikh to step outside the cage and sit next to the judge.
The judge asked Mariam what her decision is, in other words, if she decided to return to Islam. She said just one sentence, "I am Christian and I am not an apostate,"
The courthouse was silent then astonished. Some let out screams they tried to suppress with their palms, others cried, tears of worry for Mariam.
I was absolutely surprised, just days before, Mariam's lawyers and husband spoke about the pressure she is facing in jail, by the prison guards and the women imprisoned with her and by the state and the entire judiciary system. Just two days before the Sunday session where she was sentenced to execution and 100 lashes under Article 126, Apostasy, and Article 146, Adultery, Mariam received an unwelcome state visitor in prison telling her that she needs to recount her christian faith and return to Islam to escape execution. She was told that an appeal could take years and she could be stuck in jail for four years before she would be free.
In that context, as a mother of a boy under 2 years old and the future mother of a girl that she will give birth to in the coming weeks, it would have made a lot of sense for Mariam to recount her faith and choose the easy way out.
However, there is no easy way out for Mariam.
The Story

Mariam's story began with the judiciary system in September 2013. On the 14th of September 2013, a man who claims to be her brother filed a complaint that he saw his missing sister with a South Sudanese man. She was arrested along with her husband the next day , the police said that they were able to track her using her cellphone number after arresting her husband's cousin by mistake. Mariam was in and out of jail based on adultery charges as her family claimed that she is Muslim by birth and she can not have married this Christian man, Dr. David Wani, and because they have a child together, this is Zina or adultery as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law. In mid-January 2014, Omdurman Women's Prison became Mariam's full-time home with her now 20 months old son, Martin. Around that time, her defense team said is when the apostasy charges were added as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law.
Mariam said that her mother is Ethiopian and her father is a Sudanese Muslim and she was raised as a Christian following her mother's religion. She lived in Gedarif before moving to Khartoum sometime in 2005 , she married Dr.Wani in late 2011. At the time her family, which represents the complainer in this case, claimed that she disappeared after Ramadan 2012, Mariam was married and pregnant with her first child, Martin, at the time. Both Mariam's story and her alleged family's story have serious gaps, , but I will look beyond the personal, at a case that is more politically and socially complex , than a family problem.
Before Mariam's story, the Sudanese public have not heard of of a person sentenced for apostasy since 1985, when the Republican party's spiritual leader, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, was sentenced in public for apostasy, just a mere months before the March-April revolution. After the revolution, Taha's daughter who is a lawyer worked with a team of defense lawyers, and took this case to the constitutional court which deemed the case and his sentencing unconstitutional. This did not stop the judge from referring to the case of Taha on the Sunday where he sentenced Mariam to death by execution as a case of apostasy.
In April 2014, before Mariam, there was Faiza Abdullah. A simple mother of 8 who converted to Christianity to marry her husband who is Christian and works at the church. Abdullah found herself in a dilemma when she went to get a National ID number, the officer saw her name and asked her "what is your religion?". When she said she is Christian, he automatically wore the hat of a complainer and took her to court. During her trial, her father said that he is Muslim and she was Muslim growing up, but she converted to Christianity. The father had no objections to the fact that his daughter left Islam. Last week, a man in his 40s was arrested in a mosque in Southern Khartoum because he distributed pamphlets promoting Christianity. When I followed the news, I was told that his lawyer pleaded that he is mentally unstable and he was sentenced to a psychiatric ward. A lawyer friend told me that the lawyer could have used this approach to save his client from the ordeal of Mariam.
It seems very bizarre that a man who distributes pamphlets promoting Christianity in a mosque three weeks in a row is "mentally unstable", he seems very certain about what he wants to do.

The People Who Held Signs

Outside Mariam's court house, civil society activists began gathering and stood on the stairs leading to the court, some armed with posters that read slogans like "the death penalty is inhumane| and "the right of religion is a constitutional right" and others armed with their loud dissenting voices. What followed was an ideological battle between those activists who largely represent the moderate religious voices such as the Republicans and those who are affiliated with the Sudanese left and the bearded sheikhs and young men who are against everything those activists stand for. Because in reality, it is a greater gain for the the Sudan Scholars Council to pressure Maryam into Islam than to have her sentenced to death. It is a gain for Islam in Sudan and a gain against the Sudanese left which is viewed as a threat to the entire Islamist project.
The court was a battlefield between those two parties, it was a moral and political battle. Moral because the religious zealots view civil society activists as morally inferior and anti-religion and are in a constant struggle against religious values which they believe are inherently Sudanese. Political because what Amel Habbani, a Sudanese journalist, said in front of the court house, summarized the political debate between both sides. "You want to execute Maryam, but you don't want to even try those corrupt murderers in power," she argued, only to be told to cover her hair. She screamed, "no to women's oppression". In fact, Maryam's case is another testament that the political is always fought over women's bodies.
In the case of Maryam and Faiza, the state acted as the patriarch , showing complete contempt and lack of acceptance for his daughters' decisions. Faiza was divorced from her husband by the patriarch while Maryam is continuing to be painted as a girl who was "bewitched" by forces only known to the Sudan Scholars Council. If she continues to refuse to succumb to the decision imposed upon her by the state, she will be lashed 100 times and executed. If she recounts Christianity, she will still be lashed and will also be divorced from a husband.
The Gap Within

In the days before that hot Thursday afternoon, Sudanese activists began a social media campaign, in the form of a hashtag and a Facebook page, respectively. The purpose was to gather support for Maryam's case and invite people to attend her trial. The solidarity campaign caused serious issues to resurface, those issues are usually much easier to bury when we are discussing a social problem or a political issue such as the regime's use of excess force against civilians in war zones or even political detentions. But when you discuss religion, you automatically find yourself walking in a landmine, between the total seculars, the bearded seculars and those in between.
The debate ensued, between trying to tell Maryam's story to the people in her own words without the gaps, that she is Christian based on her mother's religion and by this, you gain a large number of followers who will support Mariam merely because they will blame her father who abandoned her as a child to be brought up by her Christian mother. It becomes tricky and you could attract the kind of followers, who stand against Maryam's apostasy sentence, but still believe that as a Muslim, you can not leave your faith. In other words, the solidarity campaign stops at supporting Maryam's right to practice Christianity, but does not uphold the constitutional right to "Freedom of religion".
Moreover, a main argument used by the solidarity campaign which includes journalists, activists and even scholars is to question the Huddud in Islam, with many arguing that death for apostasy is not even Islamic. Those who defend Mariam's right to life because Islam does not have the death penalty for apostasy are usually silent on her second sentence, Article 146.
Others who argue that death for apostasy is in Islam ignore that this sentence is against Sudan's Interim constitution which should, in practice, reflect an Islamic constitution since Sudan has been ruled by Islamists since 1989.
A few weeks ago, I posted a news piece on Twitter stating that " a university girl was lashed for getting pregnant by her fiancee". I asked where is the fiancee in this lashing and reiterated that I am against lashing. I then received many comments supporting that the fiancee also had to be lashed because this is Zina based on the Islamic law. The readers simply missed my point, I only asked where the fiancee is in the lashing because in most Zina cases in Sudan , the woman is the one getting lashed. If the fiancee was asked and he denied, orally, that this is his baby, he will not be lashed, but she will under all circumstances. This does not change my stance that both sides should not be lashed, however, my question was a jab at the judiciary system which is supported by a patriarchal socio-political system which incriminates women even in their private lives.
Finally, Mariam's case stands as a real challenge for civil society activists in her solidarity campaign, at the end of the day, if they want to challenge the Apostasy law in Sudan, international pressure and advocacy alone is not enough. National pressure and advocacy is much needed and by the high number of "likes" on the Facebook Page , many inside Sudan are interested in Maryam's case, but how to sell Mariam's case as a human rights issue, as a "Freedom of Religion" issue will be a dilemma. If we want to uphold Mariam's story in her own words, we still have to convince people that even though she says that she is Christian due to her mother's influence, she has the constitutional right to be part of any religion she wishes. However, if we uphold the other side's story, that she is their runaway daughter who left Islam, then the solidarity campaign will face the challenge of standing up to zealots who act as guardians to the Islamic state in Sudan.
Cross-posted at ---