In the past three weeks alone, government forces have arrested more than 100 real or perceived opponents of the government, including the well-known Sudanese writer, artist, activist, and former state adviser on cultural affairs, Abdelmoniem Rahma, who was arrested by national security officials in Damazin, Blue Nile on September 2, 2011, according to reports received by Human Rights Watch.
"Rather than trying to silence dissent by fear and intimidation, Sudan should promote political debate in the face of its complicated political challenges," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Increased repression will only breed further violence and abuse."
South Sudan became independent on July 9 following a January referendum under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan's civil war.
Sudanese authorities have cracked down on the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) - the successor to the southern SPLM party that shared power with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) until the South's independence. Authorities have arrested hundreds of suspected party members, banned political parties, and restricted media coverage. The clampdown started when a new conflict broke out between Sudanese forces and armed opposition groups on the northern side of the border with newly-independent South Sudan.
In June, government soldiers and other security forces arrested scores of ethnic Nuba civilians, suspected supporters of SPLM, at checkpoints and in house-to-house searches in Kadugli and other towns. Government forces also carried out extra-judicial killings and beatings and looted and burned homes and churches. According to an August report released by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, government forces also shot at and threatened to kill UN peacekeeping staff, and arrested national UN employees who were attempting to leave from the Kadugli airport on June 22. Two of those arrested are still in detention. The High Commissioner has warned that human rights violations carried out in Southern Kordofan could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On June 26, national security officials arrested Dr. Bushra Gammar Hussein Rahma, a prominent Nuba human rights activist, and detained him in a national security detention center in Khartoum for three weeks before moving him to a prison. Prosecutors ordered him released on August 14 for lack of evidence, but national security officials took him into custody again the same day and are detaining him at their headquarters office in Khartoum, where he has no access to family or lawyer visits.
A second wave of arrests accompanied the outbreak of fighting in Blue Nile on September 2. Security forces arrested more than 100 suspected party members, closed party offices, and confiscated both party and personal property of members in towns across Sudan, including in Darfur. Many detainees were released within hours or days, after being forced to sign a renunciation of their political affiliation, former detainees told Human Rights Watch. SPLM-North officials said that 149 members were detained across Sudan as of September 15, with the majority in Blue Nile and Khartoum. The exact number of detainees and their whereabouts are not known.
"The government should immediately communicate the names of all detained men and women and the places of their detention to relevant community leaders and family members," said Bekele. "Authorities should release or charge them and ensure access by family and lawyers."
The risk of ill-treatment and torture is a particular concern. Released detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in July showed signs of beatings. Earlier in 2011, Human Rights Watch and other groups documented a pattern of torture of student protesters arrested by security officials during pro-democracy demonstrations in Khartoum. Human rights groups have long called on Sudan to reform the National Intelligence and Security Service, which routinely uses its broad powers of arrest and detention against opponents of the ruling NCP and is known for ill-treatment and torture of detainees.
Along with the arbitrary arrests and detentions, Sudanese security officials have also tightened restrictions on media and political speech. In mid-September, security officials warned editors not to publish statements of SPLM-North opposition leaders or rebel leaders from Darfur, where the conflict is now in its eighth year and shows little sign of ending. Although Sudan has not resumed the practice of pre-print censorship employed in the past, security officials confiscated editions of Al Midan, Al Jareeda, al Sahafa, and Akhbar al Yom because they contained articles about the fighting or articles by writers who oppose the ruling party.
"These restrictions on press freedom and access to information stifle public dialogue about critical events concerning citizens," said Bekele. "It appears Sudanese authorities are seeking to prevent public dialogue and keep information from the public and the international community."
In early June, security forces in El Obeid prevented Al Jazeera reporters from travelling to Southern Kordofan. Sudan has also forced out the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMIS) by refusing to extend its mandate, which ended in July, and has restricted aid groups from assisting displaced people in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. On August 23, President Omar al-Bashir said no international groups would be allowed into Southern Kordofan.
In July, authorities banned Ajras al Huriya, a prominent opposition daily popular with SPLM supporters, along with five other South Sudan-run newspapers. Earlier this month, authorities banned additional newspapers and 17 political parties - including SPLM-North - for their alleged "foreign" links to South Sudan. The move appears designed to create a legal basis for the actions against the SPLM-North in recent weeks, said Human Rights Watch.
"With the South's independence, Sudan has an opportunity to make long-promised reforms," Bekele said. "It should immediately take steps to reverse the current wave of repression and show its commitment to civil and political rights for Sudanese people."
Armed conflict between government and armed opposition broke out in Southern Kordofan on June 5 and spread to Blue Nile on September 2, when President al-Bashir declared a state of emergency and dismissed the state's governor, Malik Agar, who is the head of SPLM-North, and replaced him with a military commander. The two states, which lie north of the border with South Sudan, are home to historically marginalized populations with longstanding links to the former rebel SPLM, which is now the ruling party in South Sudan.
Following South Sudan's independence under the CPA, Sudan is to form a new government and pass a new constitution. To date, however, the ruling NCP has shown little willingness to include other political parties or make the constitutional process transparent, according to civil society leaders in Khartoum.