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Fri, 22 Nov 2019 04:52 GMT

Shrinking Public Spaces in Sudan

Media & Culture

Yosra Sabir

Tue, 17 Apr 2018 21:30 GMT

On 12 March this year - just over a month ago - Khartoum woke to the news that 12 young men and women had been convicted of watching the sun rise over the Nile. Al Sudani, the local newspaper, reported that the court had sentenced each sunrise watcher to three months’ imprisonment, flogging with 30 lashes and a fine of SDG 5000 (USD$ 170). It was reported that public order police had gone to the beach at 4am on the morning of 11 March and searched for people who intended to watch the sunrise. The report said that watching the sunrise was a new phenomenon in Sudan and was practiced by people who worshipped the sun.

Brigadier Maher Abdullah, the director of community security police denied that sunrise worshiping existed in the way reported in the newspaper. He said in a TV interview aired on 17 March that “during interrogation the youths justified themselves by having just graduated, or they had just finished their exams, and they were watching the sunrise to smell the nice air on the beach with friends, they had chosen this time because it was quiet and there were no crowds, until the sun rises, and that is when they go back home”.

He made clear that the police had been tracking the phenomenon of young men and women arriving at the Nile before sunrise, to check any possible violations of public order like indecent dress code, obscene acts, or using alcohol and drugs. Young people caught along the Nile watching the sunrise were prosecuted for committing offences under the Sudanese Criminal Code.

He added “We thought 5am is too early in the morning, and is still too dark a place for young men and women to meet, this is unusual and inappropriate. Nile street is available during the morning and the evening times”. He confirmed this was part of normal police duties by saying: “The community security police are tasked with spotting any behavioural deviations and acts that oppose our traditions, values, and religion, we prevent crimes before they happen”.

Indecent dress code and obscene acts are among articles in the Sudanese criminal code which have been heavily criticised in the past two decades by human rights group in Sudan and internationally. The major criticisms are the vagueness in defining those crimes, summary trials in prosecuting the offenders and the practices of the police officers while conducting sweeps in search of those crimes.

Mahmoud, a lawyer who came across the sunrise watchers in a police station and witnessed several trials, and prefers to stay anonymous, testified that the police in the latest incident made 11 young women write a pledge that they would not watch the sunrise by the Nile again, before releasing them on bail. He mentioned that last year a court in Khartoum punished three women for committing a foreign practice by watching the sunrise and made them pay a fine of SDG 2000 (USD$ 100).

A 29 year old lawyer Maria, who regularly watches the sunrise along the Nile, said “I go regularly, with friends, sometimes on a daily basis because watching the sunrise at the Nile is beautiful, and there is not much to do in Khartoum. After the sun rises, we go to drink coffee and then head home. Usually there is a friend who owns a car and offers a place for a few other friends to go together and watch the sunrise. It is an inexpensive way to spend leisure time for people who have no other leisure options”. Maria questioned why it is a problem for the police that people go to the Nile in the early morning. She responded to the head of community security police by saying, “Who has the authority to decide that meeting at 4 or 5 in the morning is inappropriate? Is it the government or the people who meet at 4 am? As long as they are meeting at that time then it must be appropriate for them, and to their place in society”.

She further explained, “If we submitted to giving the state the authority to decide and interfere in our personal affairs, I still see a problem in the notion that the community security police, which are also known as the public order police, prevent crimes before they take place. An act is considered a crime based on the intention of the actor and committing the criminal act. The intention itself is not enough to criminalise the person, and therefore criminalising sunrise watchers on suspicion of intending to commit crimes is not enough”.

She responded to the statement of the director of community security police - about watching the sunrise being a new phenomenon foreign to our society - by saying, “This is not true, we are reviving an old tradition. Culture is fluid, it changes, society does not have one unified culture that could be applied to all members of the society, there is no such thing as protecting culture and society”.

How do Sudanese youth spend their leisure time?

There are few options for young Sudanese men and women in urban centres to spend their leisure time. A few cinemas in Khartoum screen a limited number of Indian and Egyptian movies, but it is too expensive for most people. The same goes for theatre shows and sports activities. Civil society organisations used to provide spaces for cultural activities and youth programmes; for instance, Alkhatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment, a nonprofit organisation, used to organise weekly movie screenings, musical concerts, theatre shows, literature events, and intellectual debates for free. Beit Alfonoon, a cultural centre in the capital’s twin city Khartoum North, used to organise open mic poetry nights, musical and theatre shows and provide a space for young men and women to meet, perform and enjoy the arts. Both organisations were closed down by the Sudanese authorities in 2012.

Young Sudanese men and women on Twitter tell how they spend their spare time in Khartoum. @MElbashirr tweeted, “We do not have a lot of options, but we usually go to drink coffee with any tea lady nearby my friends’ houses and this is the nicest gathering and chat in an open and comfortable place. Otherwise we have to meet in any friend’s house”.

@el_somita tweeted, “We sit in Baba Costa restaurant and café, we go to Aljenaid art gallery if there are any exhibition and we sit by the Nile. My friends and I used to go out three times a week, now because we are short on cash we only meet once a week”.

Sudanese youth are left with the choice of sitting with tea ladies or meeting in private spaces. In August 2017, tea ladies in Khartoum and other major cities were banned from working in certain areas along Nile Street and a curfew was applied to their work in other locations. Overnight, 309 tea ladies lost their livelihood because of the work ban along Nile street. Thousands of young men and women who used to gather around them and chat in public have too lost the public space where they used to spend their spare time.

Faisal, a student at the University of Khartoum, likes to spend his leisure time by meeting with friends in houses or gathering around tea ladies and in places with shisha. He was caught by the police once in 2014 for smoking shisha in Omdurman, a twin city to the capital Khartoum. He spent the whole night in police custody, appeared in court the next morning and was fined  SDG 150 (USD$ 20) for smoking shisha. He further explained, “I still do not know which article I was prosecuted under”.

Faisal often sees men in plain clothes accompanied by police officers confiscating the pots and chairs of tea ladies at different hours of the day. He explained, “It is very hard to tell when and where it is okay to sit by a tea lady. Last week I was sitting next to a tea lady at the Faculty of Pharmacy and the police truck stopped. They took some of the chairs and the pots from some of the tea ladies, and they asked us to leave because it was not allowed. It was 5pm and there was no sign saying that sitting was not allowed”.

Beware of prostitution charges

Meeting in private spaces is also under the scrutiny of the public order police. “In Sudan, it is nearly impossible to stay safe and out of the scope of the public order police authority,” said a Sudanese researcher and novelist whose house was raided in 2015.

He tells the story of his arrest: “Public order police can catch you from any place and they never run out of identifying criminal offences you commit without even knowing. I rarely go out, I have a few friends who visit my house occasionally. One of them is a female and she passes by sometimes to smoke cigarettes because she cannot do so in any other place in Khartoum, public or private. One evening, three male friends visited. They were sitting in the hall and I was in the restroom, by the time I joined them I found public order police ordering my friends to sit down and stand up in a very humiliating way. They started searching the house for weed and kept asking us about women, where do we hide them? They were very disappointed to find out that we did not have weed nor accompanied by any women. They arrested us because they found a bottle of local alcohol with a friend. We were fined and publicly flogged 40 lashes the next morning for drinking alcohol”.

Community security police raid houses occasionally in Khartoum in search of indecent acts which are criminalized under article 154 of the Sudanese criminal code. On two occasions, the police raided the houses of newly wed couples, after which the Governor of Khartoum apologized for the public humiliation when the police raided their houses in 2012.

Police regularly raid houses in search of prostitution. Sudanese law does not criminalise prostitution, instead Article 154 of the Sudanese criminal code criminalises being in a brothel which it defines as “any place designated for meeting of men, or women, or men and women between whom there are no marital relationship, or kinship in circumstances in which the exercise of sexual acts is probable to occur”.

A place of prostitution is vaguely defined on the basis of the likelihood of the occurrence of sexual activity. “A brothel can be your house, your office and even your car, no one is immune from being publicly shamed for spending their leisure time in public or private spaces,” said Mahmoud, the Khartoum based lawyer.

Roving prostitutes caught in Khartoum

On 26 March 2018, the local newspaper Alakhbar reported that 18 women, part of a roving prostitution network, were caught in Khartoum and punished with flogging and fines under Article 152 for indecent dress and Article 153 for possession of indecent materials.

Nabeel Adib Abdallah, a prominent human rights lawyer, commented on his Facebook page about the news of the 'roving prostitution case' by saying, “I do not understand how those women were caught and prosecuted for roving prostitution because the law only identifies and punishes prostitution for happening in a particular place”.

Mahmoud, the Khartoum based lawyer, commented that, “if the news about practicing sunrise watching and roving prostitution cases were not true, the police would have filed cases against the journalists who wrote those reports and the publishing newspapers. Those terms (practicing sunrise watching and roving prostitution) are used when arresting people and interrogating them, but the actual charges and trials that are held fall under the acts of the Sudanese criminal code, including indecent dress code, obscene acts, possession of indecent materials. All those crimes are vaguely defined and could be applied against anyone”.

“Authorities want us only to move from your male guardian’s house to the grave,” says a Sudanese women rights activist.

Maria condemned the closure of public spaces specifically for women. She said, “If we are going to be harassed by the police for watching the sunrise, sitting in a restaurant, or visiting our friends it implies that women should only move from the house of their fathers to the house of their husbands and then to the grave. We have police at universities banning students from being on campus after certain hours, we have public order police in the public sphere and they also raid homes. This is endangering social relations between people and intended to restrict social and political exchange”.