Why Do People Want Change in Sudan? A barbaric penal code is one reason

By Eric Reeves

July 16, 2012 (SSNA) — Hudud, a specific category of punishment within the penal code of sharia (Islamic law), is unspeakably barbaric in Sudan. And this barbarism has not diminished in recent years, despite claims in some quarters that Islamism is on the wane in Sudan, still a vast and highly various country. The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIC/NCP) regime is as committed as ever to an extremely aggressive interpretation of sharia, as well as its uniform imposition. Under the penal provisions of hudud in Sudan, women are regularly sentenced to be flogged (a punishment that can be fatal) for crimes ranging from brewing beer to support a family to wearing insufficiently "modest" clothing. Even more shocking, women—and girls—are sentenced to be stoned to death under Sudanese hudud for adultery. Although sentences are typically commuted in the judicial proceedings, commutation is entirely arbitrary and seems to depend upon the degree of international attention that is focused on a given case. The execution itself is carried out by a crowd throwing stones at the victim, who is buried up to her chest with her hands tied. It is a slow, grim, and agonizing death.

Cross-amputation—the amputation of the right hand and left foot—is almost incomprehensibly cruel, yet it too persists. A case from several years ago gained prominence in the human rights world because the sentence was handed out to a 16-year-old boy. Most of these cases go unreported, but not always (the link here is to a horrific photograph of four Darfuri men who have had the sentence of cross-amputation imposed; I urge caution in deciding whether or not to view this disturbing photograph). There is no sign that the imposition of this brutally destructive assault on human flesh and spirit will end soon.

Crucifixion is also a punishment under Sudanese hudud. It is the punishment for apostasy (leaving the faith of Islam), but other crimes as well. The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies reported on the cases of seven men last November:

On 28 November 2011, Judge Altyeb Alamin Elbashir of the Special Criminal Court in North Darfur sentenced seven individuals to death and ordered them crucified following their execution. The purpose of crucifixion is to draw attention to their crimes. The group, affiliated with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), was on trial for a carjacking committed on 3 May 2010.

If the current regime in Khartoum and its president, Omar al-Bashir, have their way, all this will continue. Having allowed the South to secede a year ago, the regime confronts increasing pressures from both the more radical Islamists and the more thuggish of military hardliners. These pressures are reflected in al-Bashir’s promise about Sudan’s new constitution and the laws that will govern all Sudanese, Muslim and non-Muslim alike:

Sudan constitution to be "100 percent Islamic": BashirPresident Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Saturday Sudan’s next constitution would be "100 percent Islamic" to set an example for neighbouring countries, some of which have seen religious parties gain power after popular uprisings. The secession of mostly non-Muslim South Sudan a year ago sparked predictions that Sudan, which hosted former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, would start implementing Islamic law more strictly. In a speech to leaders of the mystical Islamic Sufi tradition in Khartoum, Bashir suggested Sudan’s new, post-secession constitution could help guide the region’s political transformation. "We want to present a constitution that serves as a template to those around us. And our template is clear, a 100 percent Islamic constitution, without communism or secularism or Western (influences)," said Bashir. (Reuters [Khartoum], July 7, 2012)

This is the president of the regime that the Obama administration believes is capable of "carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures" in Sudan. But without regime change, and the success of the current uprising, al-Bashir has given us all too clear an understanding of the future of "constitutional reform" and source of "law" for all in Sudan, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

At the same time, one of the most remarkable features of the "Arab Spring" now spreading throughout Sudan is the increasingly courageous and adamant stand of women against the brutal excesses of Sudanese sharia (other, even more uniformly Muslim countries follow versions of sharia that are not nearly so severe). Women have been at the center of the year-old resistance movement Girifna, and have made their voices heard in increasingly public fashion. One of the videos linked below provides a clandestine view of women exuberantly protesting flogging while actually in prison. It is the very spirit of political resistance to tyranny, political and religious.

It is worth noting that in Sudan, the regime’s respect for sharia does not extend to forbidding torture of the most savage sort. Having read numerous personal statements by victims of torture as part of my work on Sudanese asylum cases, and having spoken with some of these victims, I find an obscene disconnect between the Quran’s repeated speaking in "the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful," and the realities of Kober Prison and the various "ghost houses" in which Sudanese continue to endure unspeakable pain and suffering—brutal torture that is sanctioned by not a single passage in the Quran (see Appendix). I will not include their terrifying accounts here, but should anyone doubt the extremity of torture in Sudan, I would urge a reading of Chapter 20 of Halima Bashir’s searing memoir, Tears of the Desert (2008).

Nor should we forget that the Khartoum regime’s version of sharia is imposed on all, whether or not they are Muslim. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found in its most recent assessment (March 2012) that violations of religious freedom in Sudan included:

…the criminalization, subject to the death penalty, of apostasy; the efforts by the government in Khartoum to impose its restrictive interpretation of Shari’ah (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims; attacks and threats against the Christian community; the application of the Public Order Act and related laws and use of floggings for undefined acts of "indecency" and "immorality"; the denial of public religious expression and persuasion of Muslims by non-Muslims, while allowing proselytizing of non-Muslims by Muslims; and the difficulty in obtaining permission to build churches, as compared to government funding of mosque construction.

In fact, the confiscation of Christian church lands and resources, attacks on churches and church properties, harassment of clergy and parishioners, and the intimidation of Christian religious authority generally saw a marked increase following the independence of South Sudan in July 2011—this despite the long and distinguished tradition of a Christian presence in Sudan. USCIRF found that:

A number of churches were attacked in this reporting period. On January 15, extremists burned down the Presbyterian Church of the Sudan; another group burned down a church in Omdurman on June 28. A mob attacked the congregation of the Sudanese Church of Christ on Omdurman West on August 5 as congregants attempted to build a church. The mob threw stones at the members of the congregation and said that they did not want Christians in their neighborhood. In October, a religious statue in a Catholic church in Kosti, White Nile state, was defaced. In a meeting with USCIRF in October, Anglican Bishop Ezekiel Kondo said that numerous churches were razed this year. The government has not responded to any of these attacks. There were threats to additional Christian houses of worship. On September 11, officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning and Public Utilities threatened to demolish the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and the Roman Catholic Church in Omdurman if the churches continued to conduct services. The officials, who marked the church doors with a red X, said that the churches were operating on government land without permission. In addition to these threats, church leaders report that Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowment officials have asked them to reveal information about church activities and church members. At the end of the reporting period, no action had been taken against the churches.

USCIRF also reports that,

…religiously-based attacks on the Christian community reportedly amounting to ethnic cleansing occurred in the fighting in Southern Kordofan; more than 150 persons were arrested for apostasy and many forced to renounce their faith; Christian leaders and houses of worship were attacked and threatened; and a new constitution is predicted to remove religious freedom and human rights protections included in the Interim National Constitution.

In 2011, nearly 170 persons were imprisoned and charged with apostasy, a crime punishable by death in Sudan. In the past, suspected converts were subjected to intense scrutiny, intimidation, and sometimes torture by government security personnel. On May 8, Sudanese intelligence officers arrested Hawa Abdulla Muhammad Saleh, a Christian, for apostasy, proselytizing, "Christianization of minors," and other crimes. Upon her arrest, the government posted a picture of Hawa holding a Bible in her hand, putting her life in danger. She was later released and remains in the country. On July 29, 150 people were arrested and 129 were charged with apostasy, disturbance of the public peace, and being a public nuisance. The individuals are members of the Darfur Hausa ethnic group and practice a version of Islam different than the one propagated by the ruling NCP; they follow the Qur’an but not the sunna. The individuals were released in September only after they renounced their faith and agreed to follow the government’s interpretation of Islam.


Below is a brief compendium of further excerpts bearing on Sudan’s version of sharia and hudud, drawn from human rights reporting, news dispatches, and videos (one video carries an appropriate viewer warning). There is also an Appendix discussing the question of torture and sharia.

• Flogging protest—spirited and courageous women in Khartoum protest the barbarism of flogging even while imprisoned:


• An infamous video of a woman being mercilessly flogged in Khartoum (caution—brutal viewing): http://vimeo.com/18778956

• African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, Crucifixion: November 2011

Special Court in Darfur Upholds Verdict Sentencing Seven to Death and Crucifixion

On 28 November 2011, Judge Altyeb Alamin Elbashir of the Special Criminal Court in North Darfur sentenced seven individuals to death and ordered them crucified following their execution. The purpose of crucifixion is to draw attention to their crimes. The group, affiliated with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), was on trial for a carjacking committed on 3 May 2010. Three other defendants were sentenced to varying amounts of time in prison. The group was originally found guilty by the South Darfur Special Criminal Court and sentenced to death on 21 October 2010. However, the Supreme Court of Khartoum ordered a retrial due to the inclusion of minors in the sentencing and trial. The application of capital punishment to minors and trial of minors with adults is illegal under Sudan’s international obligations. Below is a list of the defendants sentenced to death and crucifixion: ·

Aboalgasim Abdalla Abubakar

Mohamed Adam Eisa

Adam Altoum Adam

Alsadig Abakar Yahya

Abdarazig Daoud Abdelseed, age 15 at the time of the carjacking

Ibrahim Shrief Yousef, age 17 at the time of the carjacking

Hassan Eshag Abdalla

Minors Idris Adam Abakar and Abdalla Abdalla Doud were sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment. Altyeb Mohamed Yagoup, also a minor, was sentenced to 2 years in reform prison. In the original case, despite giving their actual ages, they were tried as adults. This was in violation of the Child Law of 2004, which established special courts and juvenile detention centers, and Article 34 of the Interim National Constitution, which provides the right to a fair trial.  

• In May of this year The Guardian reported on a woman (possibly under 18 years of age) sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery:

A young mother found guilty of adultery in Sudan has been sentenced to death by stoning, prompting an outcry from human rights campaigners. Intisar Sharif Abdallah was tried without access to a lawyer and is being detained with her four-month-old baby, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty puts Abdallah’s age at 20; Human Rights Watch says she may be under 18. Her family is appealing against the execution and it is unclear when it will be carried out. Abdallah admitted to the charges only after her brother reportedly beat her. The conviction was based solely on this testimony. The man held with her reportedly denied the charges and was released. Abdallah is said to be shackled by the legs and in psychological distress, unable to understand the nature of her sentence. Her other children are being cared for by family, who are of filing an appeal in Ombada. Jean-Baptiste Gallopin of Amnesty’s Sudan team said: "The case is emblematic of the failure of the Sudanese judicial system. Intisar Sharif Abdallah was tried without access to a lawyer or a translator, despite the fact that Arabic is not her native language. She was convicted solely based on a testimony she gave under duress. She’s being detained with her four-month old son, in a state of deep psychological distress. We call on the Sudanese authorities to stop the execution, overturn her stoning sentence and release her immediately and unconditionally." "Stoning is a method of execution designed to increase the suffering of the victim, which means it is an extreme and cruel form of torture. International human rights law specifically prohibits death sentences resulting from unfair trial, as well as the execution of new mothers. In addition, we urge the government to have the best interest of Intisar’s child as their main consideration during the judicial process."

• These punishments have a grim history over the past decade:

Sudan: Sentencing to death by stoning of two women on adultery charges: VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN Geneva, 9 March 2007.The International Secretariat of the World Organisation Against Torture requests your URGENT intervention in the following situation in Sudan

Brief description of the situation:

The International Secretariat of OMCT has been informed by the Sudan Organisation Against Torture (SOAT), a member of the OMCT network, of the recent sentencing to death by stoning of two women by the criminal court of Al-Azazi, Managil province, Gazeera state.

According to the information received, the court headed by Judge Hatim Abdurrahman Mohamed Hasan sentenced to death by stoning Ms. Amouna Abdallah Daldoum (23 years old) and Ms. Sadia Idries Fadul (22 years old from Tama tribe, Darfur), on 6 March 2007 and 13 February 2007 respectively, for committing adultery. The two women were charged under article 146 (a) of Sudan’s 1991 Penal Code, which states that “whoever commits the offence of adultery shall be punished with: a) execution by stoning when the offender is married (Muhsan); b) one hundred lashes when the offender is not married (non-muhsan).”

It has been reported that Ms. Sadia Idries Fadul does not fully understand Arabic, the language used in Court, and that the man questioned in her case was discharged after denying adultery and due to lack of evidence.

Both women sentenced have appealed against the judgment.

OMCT expresses its grave concern for the physical and psychological integrity of the two women and recalls that the Government of Sudan, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, must protect the right of every individual to life, liberty and security by law and to adopt all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify and abolish existing law regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against women and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

• Cross-amputation: Amnesty International account, October 31, 2003

Sudan: Boy, 16, faces judicial amputation of hand and foot

The organisation is calling for the sentence – passed two weeks ago – to be commuted and Amnesty international has launched an urgent appeal on the boy’s behalf. On 14 October Mohamed Hassan Hamdan was sentenced to "cross amputation" by a Special Court in the city of Nyala, South Darfur state in Sudan. Such punishment constitutes torture and contravenes international human rights standards ratified by Sudan.

In August, Mohamed Hassan Hamdan was arrested along with five adults in Rehad al-Birdi province, southwest of Nyala, on suspicion of involvement in an armed attack on a group of people in Darfur. They were charged with armed robbery ("haraba") under Article 167 of the Sudanese Penal Code. All six defendants pleaded not guilty to the offence.

The trial was held in a Special Court, which does not respect international standards for fair trials. The prosecution witnesses in court apparently singled out Mohamed Hassan Hamdan as the assailant who shot one person in the leg, and as a result he was the only defendant to be convicted. The defence lawyer was absent during the last session of the trial when Mohamed Hassan Hamdan was convicted.

His lawyer has lodged an appeal with Darfur’s Appeal Court. If his appeal is rejected, he has the right of appeal to the Supreme Court in the capital Khartoum; if upheld, his sentence could then be carried out at any time. Mohamed Hassan Hamdan is no being held in Nyala Prison awaiting the result of his appeals.

• Human Rights Watch on stonings and cross-amputations (2002):


[excerpt] Sudan’s justice system is handing down barbaric punishments including death by stoning and amputations, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has sent a letter to Sudan’s president condemning these punishments and strongly urging that the sentences not be carried out.

In recent months, a pregnant southern Sudanese woman, Abok Alfau Akok, was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, and at least six men have been sentenced to limb amputation for theft.

Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about Sudan’s so-called "emergency courts," where the amputation sentences have been issued. These emergency tribunals were established in 2001 under the state of emergency to deal summarily with crimes such as armed robbery, murder, and smuggling of weapons. Human Rights Watch said the tribunals do not meet basic fair trial standards, as they restrict legal representation and appeals. "These recent sentences from the Sudan judicial system are nothing short of inhumane," said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Imposing the death penalty in Arabic on this young woman who does not understand Arabic well constitutes a denial of her most fundamental human rights, and the amputation of hands and feet is a brutal punishment that disables permanently."

Appendix: Islam and torture

Most Muslims—certainly in the West—disavow torture and deny that it is justified in the Quran. From a personal point of view, I abhor torture and condemn it under all circumstances. But there are certainly many places in the Quran that are troubling for those who consider various features of hudud (as practiced in Sudan and some Muslim societies) to be torture, e.g., cross-amputation, flogging, stoning to death. What seems clear to me on the basis of my own limited understanding of Islam’s sacred book is that there is no justification for the kind of torture inflicted upon political dissidents and undesirables by the Khartoum regime. Yet as the current political uprising accelerates, reports of torture are becoming increasingly frequent: the security forces are seeking to instill ever-greater fear in a population that is desperately weary of the tyranny and economic failures of the NIF/NCP.

This said, it is important to recognize that there are suras (chapters) in the Quran that may be interpreted as justifying punishments that are ipso facto torture, and other that are highly xenophobic in character. To avoid the growing controversies about the meaning of the original Arabic and the character of Islam, I have deliberately chosen an older but well-received translation of these suras from 1956, by N.J. Dawood (who is deeply sympathetic to both Islam and the Quran):

[a] "Those that make war against Allah and His apostle and spread disorders in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the country. They shall be held to shame in this world and sternly punished in the next: except those that repent before you reduce them. For you must know that Allah is forgiving and merciful." (5:33)

Flogging for adultery is explicitly addressed in 24:2:

(c) "The adulterer and the adulteress shall each be given a hundred lashes. Let no pity for them cause you to disobey Allah, if you truly believe in Allah and the Last Day."

While pregnancy in a woman is often the only evidence necessary to convict her, it is notable that a subsequent part of the same passage accords an equal opportunity for exoneration and mercy to women, one that finds no parallel in the modern sharia of Sudan, which seems a perversion of the intention of the Prophet:

"If a man accuses his wife but has no witnesses except himself, he shall swear four times by Allah that his charge is true, calling down upon himself the curse of Allah if is he is lying. But if his wife swears four times by Allah that his charge is false and calls down His curse upon herself if it be true, she shall receive no punishment." (24:6)

I know of no case of adultery in Sudan in which a woman sentenced has been afforded this opportunity of defense. Indeed, one of the most shocking features of trials for adultery in Sudan is that many female defendants have weak or no Arabic language skills, and yet are often left to fend for themselves at critical moments in judicial proceedings. Moreover, the evidentiary requirements for adultery among men have also been distorted in Sudan’s version of sharia.

The brutality of many passages in the Quran, as well as its xenophobia, can of course be matched all too readily with comparable passage form the Old Testament and other sacred texts. Nonetheless, the emphasis on maiming and the cutting off of limbs is a recurrent theme in the Quran:

(d) "Allah revealed His will to the angels, saying: ‘I shall be with you, Give courage to the believers.  I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, main them in every limb.’" (8:12)

But as many Islamic scholars have noted, while the Quran clearly views apostasy as one of the greatest human sins, it does not prescribe death or any specific physical punishment. The historically subsequent view that sharia must regard apostasy as a capital crime, requiring capital punishment, depends upon an expansive reading of verses that nowhere explicitly specify a physical punishment.

Just how far interpretive freedom may extend for Islamic exegetes became clear several years ago when an influential Shi’a religious leader, with whom Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly consults, argued that "coercion" by means of rape, torture and drugs is acceptable against all opponents of the Islamic regime. The perverse legal justification for such "coercion" in Iran has been assessed in detail by Ervand Abrahamian (University of California Press, 1999).

The same "coercion"—without any scriptural or theological justification—is continually reported by those who survive the brutal methods of torture used by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and other security forces of the regime. In my own view—and I am familiar with the Quran only in translation—even the most contorted reading of this holy book cannot be made to support the torture of political dissidents.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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