Activists Mount Legal Challenge to NGO Closures

Civil society groups attempt to resist government crackdown in wake of ICC’s indictment of Bashir.

Activists Mount Legal Challenge to NGO Closures

Civil society groups attempt to resist government crackdown in wake of ICC’s indictment of Bashir.

It was late in the afternoon when the letter arrived at the Sudan Social Development Organization, SUDO, headquarters in Khartoum.

Signed by the Sudanese government’s Humanitarian Assistance Commission, HAC, it sounded the death knell for the largest Sudanese humanitarian organisation operating in Darfur.

Claiming that SUDO had been working outside its humanitarian mandate, the letter called for its immediate closure. It wasn’t long before security forces arrived to ensure that all of SUDO’s ten offices, computers, documents and furniture were handed over to the government. Its bank accounts were instantly frozen.

“We have no access to our funds, so we can’t even pay our employees,” said SUDO’s head, Mudawi Ibrahim Adam.

“The government shut us down because we are an independent organisation. They want their own organisations, organisations that are following the line of the government.”

SUDO is among many NGOs that have fallen victim to a recent government crackdown, which led to the expulsion of 13 foreign aid agencies and the closure of two other local human rights organisations.

An NGO representative close to SUDO said “the human rights scene in Sudan has been wiped off the map” since the International Criminal Court, ICC, indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes on March 4. Bashir said the NGOs were targeted because they “threatened the security of Sudan”, accusing them of collaboration with the ICC.

Only two hours after the warrant was issued, security forces shut down the Khartoum-based Amel Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture. The centre works to inform people of their rights and provide psychological and medical assistance to victims of human rights violations. According to the Amel Centre director Najib Najm El Din, the organisation had been seeing up to 30 new torture victims a month.

“We don’t know what is going on with our clients, because we can’t reach them,” said Najib. “For those that went to court, now nobody is following their cases. We are trying to do something through other organisations, but we don’t have enough money to offer care and pay for victim’s treatment.”

The Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development, KCHRED, was targeted on the same day, with security forces raiding the offices and confiscating a safe, computers and classified documents. KCHRED provides legal aid to victims of torture and human rights training to lawyers.

The organisation’s staff has since fled Sudan, including legal aid coordinator, Ali M Agab who is in the United Kingdom. He told IWPR that files containing the names and details of thousands of victims are now in the hands of HAC, which works closely with the security forces. “Those people’s lives are in danger now,” he said.

SUDO, which had 300 members of staff, has provided clean drinking water, health services and sanitation to 700,000 internally displaced persons.

A major project was the construction of a much-needed health clinic at the Zam Zam refugee camp in north Darfur. Several international aid agencies IWPR spoke to said they don’t know how the clinic will survive.

Selena Brewer from Human Rights Watch said the closure of SUDO and the other NGOs is having a massive impact. “It’s basically closing down that sector of Sudanese civil society. For anybody that works on human rights in Darfur or anywhere else in the country, the situation is really terrifying,” she said.

But the NGOs are determined to challenge the government over the closures. On March 10, the activists appealed the HAC decision. Their case will be heard on April 13 at the Administrative Court of Justice in Khartoum. And, they say, if that is unsuccessful, they will take their case to a higher court.

“We are not going to give up on our supporters. We have to go to the courts,” said Najib.

While outwardly bullish, some are concerned about their prospects, as there are doubts about whether Adam will be able to turn up for the appeal. He is due to appear in court on corruption charges the day before, accused of embezzling 40,000 US dollars of SUDO funds in 2004.

“They have found this out now? I don’t think they have any case, and I’m not at all scared about what they are saying,” he told IWPR.

The closure of the Sudanese NGOs follows years of state pressure on civil society activists. “The pattern of repression has been getting worse and worse, and it’s becoming impossible for people to speak out,” said Brewer.

Both SUDO and Adam have previously been subject to government intimidation. In March 2003, officials closed two of the organisation’s offices and froze its bank accounts. Adam was arrested the same year for alleged anti-state crimes. After no evidence could be produced, he was released. He was arrested again without charge in 2005, and released on bail.

Though the outcome of their appeal is uncertain, Brewer is cautiously hopeful that the NGOs will be allowed to resume their work. “I don’t think the government wants to take on providing food and water for a million people, and they certainly don’t have the capacity to do it,” she said. “So I’m hoping that the appeals process will give them a way to back down without losing face.”

Amy Stillman is an IWPR contributor in London.
Support our journalists