Three civil society organisations and one literary forum have been ordered to shut down and cease all operations by Sudanese authorities amidst a renewed clamp down on freedom of expression, association and assembly in the country. Attempts by journalists and activists to demonstrate against the closures have been suppressed by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).
On 24 December the Sudanese Studies Centre (SSC), legally registered as a civil society organisation working to promote dialogue on culture and democracy, was closed for one year by the Ministry of Culture and Media following orders from Information and Culture Minister Ahmed Belal Osman.
On 30 December, activists organised under the umbrella of the Confederation of Civil Society Organisations demonstrated outside Sudan's National Human Rights Commission. They attempted to deliver a memorandum condemning the closure of the SSC. Although the Commission's chairperson was willing to receive the memorandum, plain-clothed NISS agents surrounded the building and prevented them from entering. It was reported that one journalist was beaten and three activists were arrested and released a few hours later. The Commission subsequently condemned the actions of NISS.
The following morning, on 31 December, the Executive Director of the SSC, Mr. Abdalla Abu Alrish, was summoned from his home by NISS. He was interrogated all day before being released in the evening and ordered to return on the 1 and 2 January for further questioning.
On the same day, 31 December, the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC), a regulatory body governing the work of Sudanese civil society, closed the ARRY Organisation for Human Rights and Development (ARRY) and the Al Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE). ARRY works on human rights monitoring and documentation in South Kordofan, and has offices in Khartoum. HAC representatives entered their offices and ordered its closure. Further details are unknown.
KACE, a pro-democracy NGO that also works to promote multiculturalism in Sudan, was closed in the early afternoon by a delegation of six HAC representatives, accompanied by nine other individuals, including armed NISS officers, who delivered administrative decision no. 20, dated 26 December and signed by the General Registrar of Organisations, Dr. Mohamed Fadlalla Suraj Eldin. The decision ordered the cancellation of KACE's registration with immediate effect, and its removal from the NGO register. An inventory of the office was recorded and the assets of KACE seized.
The NISS also summoned Sudanese writer Ms. Zeinab Belil for interrogation on 31 December. Ms. Belil is chairperson of the Cultural Forum for Literary Criticism, a network of Sudanese writers. The NISS ordered the forum to cease all of its activities. Ms. Belil was interrogated about the relationship of the forum to the Iranian Cultural Chancellery in Khartoum, which funds a literary prize awarded yearly.
On 6 January, another demonstration was organised by the Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and the Campaign for the Defence of the Freedom of Expression and Publishing in front of the Presidential Office. The demonstrators intended to deliver a letter to the Presidential Office calling for a reversal of the closures, which they deemed unconstitutional, as well as a stop to the harassment of independent civil society. The NISS closed the roads surrounding the Presidential Office, and only allowed a delegation of five prominent members of civil society, led by Dr. Amin Mekki Medani, to proceed. The Presidential Office refused to accept the letter.
The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) calls on the Government of Sudan (GoS) to:
Immediately allow the closed organisations to re-open and continue their peaceful work in support of civil society initiatives to promote democracy and cultural diversity in Sudan. Their assets should also be unfrozen.
Respect the right of Sudanese people to peacefully protest and fully exercise their rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression as recognised by the Interim National Constitution of 2005.
ACJPS has serious concerns that by targeting civil society organisations in this manner, the GoS is seeking to close down the small space available in which Sudanese civil society operates. The closures follow widespread anti-regime demonstrations that spread throughout Sudan from June - August 2012, and were lead in large part by Sudanese youth movements.
Increasingly threatened by vocal discontent amongst the Sudanese people, the Government of Sudan is seeking to close down any forums for independent civil society dialogue and coordination. The Sudanese authorities have further accused the closed civil society organisations of receiving funding from the United States of America (US) to undermine the ruling National Congress Party. In a speech on the Government controlled Sudan TV on 2 January, First Vice President Mr. Ali Osman Taha stated that the recently closed organisations were being used by "western" intelligence agencies to engineer the fall of the regime, citing the book 'Rogue State: a Guide to the World's Only Superpower', written by a US author. The book, first published in 2000 and revised in 2005, details US funding to civil society in pursuit of regime change in different Arab and African contexts, including Sudan.
In a parallel development, on 25 December 2012 President Omar al-Bashir issued a presidential decree establishing a committee to examine the regulations of foreign NGOs in Sudan. The committee will be headed by a representative of the defence ministry and include delegates from the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Interior, the Darfur Regional Authority, HAC and the NISS.
ACJPS fears that the recent closures signal the beginning of a third wave clamp down on independent civil society by the GoS, with the first being ushered in alongside the military coup in 1989 and the second in 2009 after the International Criminal Court's announcement of the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir. Sudanese civil society has only recently begun to recover from the effects of the closures in 2009.