On 29 May, proceedings brought by the prosecutor of the Press and Publications Court against Professor Omar el Gerai, a journalist and activist, and Abdallah Sheikh, the editor of Ajras Alhurria,began in Al Shemali Court in Khartoum North. The two journalists are being tried for an article published 6 March by Professor el Gerai in Ajras Alhurria entitled “Rape…under Sharia law”, (available here in Arabic). The article detailed the brutal treatment of the youth activist and Girifna member Safiya Ishag, who was raped multiple times and subjected to torture in National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) custody following her participation in the 30 January demonstrations in Khartoum. In his piece, Mr. el Gerai called for a formal investigation.
Prior to the initial hearing, the lawyers of Professor el Gerai and Mr. Sheikh had only been told informally of the charges leveled against their clients under the 1991 Sudanese Criminal Code, and were told by the prosecutor that they would have to wait and see on 29 May. They have since been charged with defamation, and their trials postponed to 21 June. Mr. Sheikh is facing seven separate complaints: four filed by the NISS, one by the military, and one by the ministers’ council. Judge Modather ab Rasheed, who will hear the case, has stated that he will first hear the evidence introduced by the relevant authorities. Professor el Gerai and Mr. Sheikh’s case is not an isolated incident. Several other journalists are facing criminal charges brought by the NISS for reporting on Ms. Ishag’s case, including:
- Faisal Mohamed Saleh, a human rights journalist and columnist for Al Akhbar. His case was also presented to Al Shemali Court and its proceedings have been delayed till 28 June.
- Amal Habbani, a prominent journalist and women’s rights activists. She is expected to appear before the Court on 12 June.
- Faiz al Silaik, former deputy editor in chief of Ajras Alhurria. Mr. al Silaik is facing seven cases filed by the NISS, police, military, and Ministers’ Council. Some of these cases have come before the Court, and some are still pending within the prosecutor’s office.
Ahmed Osman, editor in chief of The Citizen, an English language newspaper, Dr. Nahid Mohamed Al Sassan, writer with Ajras Alhurria, and Al Ayaam have all been announced by the Clerk of the court, but have not been contacted or formally informed of charges by the Court or their potential trial dates. All have been filed by the NISS. Newspapers contacted by ACJPS appeared unaware of proceedings against their staff. Activists intend to monitor the trials and appear in court in solidarity with the journalists. A campaign to support them by providing technical and financial support for their legal fees and draft editorials has been established, called the Sudanese Campaign for Freedom of Opinion and Conscience. The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies calls on the government of Sudan to drop the charges against Mr. Sheikh and Professor el Gerai and their colleagues, which seem motivated by a desire to prevent public discussion of NISS conduct rather than a desire to protect the reputation of individual security agents.
Allegations of defamation presume that the allegations against an individual are false. In this case, ACJPS believes that Ms. Ishag’s testimony is credible and deserves to be heard. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under Sudan’s international commitments, as well as Article 39 (1) of the interim national constitution. Further, there are serious concerns that Mr. Sheikh and Professor el Gerai will not receive a fair trial, as their lawyers have only just been informed of the charges against them. ACJPS sees this incident as undue interference in the right to mount a defence and, as such, a serious breach of fair trial standards. The right to a fair trial is articulated in Article 34 of the Interim National Constitution of Sudan, Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Additionally, the proceedings against the journalists who reported on Ms. Ishag’s case sends a very clear message to survivors of sexual violence that not only they, but also those who may seek to support them, may be victimized again. This is likely to dissuade women (and men) who have reported being raped or threatened with the prospect of it from coming forward. Ms. Ishag’s bravery has already forced her to leave the country; other activists have likely suffered similar trauma and stay quiet.