Freedom on the front line... for now

October 8, 2004

To criticise the Sudanese regime is to risk arrest, torture and even death. However, reports Chris Bunting, academics are still able to speak their minds in the classroom.

On September 10, Shamsuldin Idriss, a student at Sudan's al-Nilein University, died in custody a day after being arrested in a government round-up of activists from the opposition Popular National Congress Party. Doctors who examined his corpse found brain injuries and bruising on his legs, abdomen and shoulder. The police claimed he died of "stomach pains".

Four days later, the body of Abdulrahman Suleiman Adam, a student at Al-Gezira University arrested in the same crackdown, was returned to his parents. His skull had been cracked. The police said he had fallen from their car when he had been arrested.

Asked about Idriss's death, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, First Vice-President, said an investigation would be carried out. He added: "Under these kinds of circumstances, where there are battles... some incidents may occur."

Since Taha's comments there has been no new explanation of the deaths, but the round-up of members of the PNCP has continued. It gained new ferocity last week after the Government said the party, led by the Islamist thinker and former regime ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, had been involved in plotting a failed coup. Popular Congress student leader Al Naji Abdalla is believed to have been severely beaten during his arrest, and Yasir Musa, another member of the party's student wing, received hospital treatment after reportedly being tortured by security forces.

The PNCP is the focus of persecution despite the fact that some of its members were, until recently, stalwarts of the ruling regime. Other PNCP members working in the Sudanese university system are, however, more than familiar with the authorities' capacity for vicious oppression.

Rashid Mohamed Salih Mohamed Ahmed is a third-year student of marine science at the Red Sea University in Port Sudan, a student union culture secretary and a supporter of the opposition Democratic Front party. On July 13, five security officers came to his family home, forced him out of hiding by taking his father hostage, and took him to the local police station, where he was beaten using a hosepipe and electric wires for more than an hour. He was kept in a dark 1m-by-2m cell in temperatures going above 45C. When two fellow student union officers came to protest against his detention, they too were beaten by security officers. Ahmed was lucky to be released the next day.

His case was by no means exceptional. In July, the Sudan Organisation against Torture reported an increase in the number of students and activists being subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture. At that time, the focus seemed not to be the PNCP, but supporters of southern Sudanese opposition groups. The organisation cited four other cases between May and July in which student activists had been arrested, beaten and, in some cases, threatened with rape.

It is tempting, when reading such reports, to try to understand the intellectual and political environment in the Sudan in simplistic terms. It has become a cliché of discussions of academic freedom under oppressive regimes to imagine the state operating in the classic Big Brother mode, imposing blanket surveillance on intellectuals and unfailingly punishing thought crimes. No such situation, however, exists in Sudan. A measure of freedom does persist in the system. It is possible, for instance, to telephone liberal-leaning academics at the University of Khartoum and engage in frank discussion about intellectual freedom in the country, without any apparent fear on their part of persecution.

Mohamed Saeed Elgaddal, an authority on the modern history of Sudan, has more reason than most to fear the regime. He was one of more than 300 academics dismissed because of their political and religious unreliability after the 1989 coup led by General Umar al-Bashir. He was imprisoned and was forced into exile in Yemen and Egypt.

Yet Elgaddal, who was reinstated to his post in Khartoum in 1999, is outspoken in his assessment of the state of the country's higher education system. Asked if he wants to remain anonymous, he laughs and says his views are well known. It is a startlingly different response from, for instance, that typical of Iraqi academics under Saddam Hussein's regime, who were often reluctant to reveal their identities in print even when they were living in exile in Britain.

"Now that the regime is encircled by so many problems, it is not in full power. There are internal pressures on it, and there are international pressures. The focus is no longer on the universities. Unless you pose a military threat, they are not going to come after you," Elgaddal says.

Instead, he says, the restrictions on academics in Khartoum are more administrative and procedural. "We are in a very bad situation because most of the leaders of the university are appointed by the Government from their own people, even when they are not qualified for the job," he says. "They appointed a dean of the faculty of law, for instance, who has no academic qualifications, and they appointed a new vice-chancellor who has no experience in administration. The vice-chancellor before him did not have a PhD."

Elgaddal stresses that regime loyalists have always been a minority in his university - a recent student election saw the Islamist candidate heavily defeated, and the universities' teachers' union is also beyond their grasp - but he believes the control of the main levers of power and patronage in the university by an "inner circle" of government appointees is steadily creating an environment in which academics are reluctant to speak out.

"I recently wrote an article in the press about a PhD in Islamic law that was passed by Khartoum in which the standard of research was just not up to scratch, and there was absolutely no response from anyone. I publicised it but there was just silence," he says.

Adlan al-Hardalo, another prominent Khartoum academic and a veteran peace campaigner, agrees with Elgaddal's criticisms and says the effect of control of administrative power is far-reaching.

"If I want to go to a conference outside Sudan, I need a letter from the vice-chancellor to the Minister of the Interior. They will often not give it to you. Even if the conference is in Sudan, you need the permission of the dean. If you want to publish in the internal newspaper, sometimes you are told, if your story is critical, that they don't want to publish it.

When you publish a book, they have to go to the classification department for permission. Even inviting people from outside to visit the university can be stopped. I wanted to get together a group of people to talk about the political crisis in Sudan, but I was told I needed permission to use the university hall. I was refused permission."

Al-Hardalo says he is free only in his lectures. "In the classroom, you can say anything. You are free. Nobody interferes. You know some of your students might be security people. You are spotted by them, but you are not followed at the moment."

Idris Ibrahim Azraq, a cultural anthropologist who now works as spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the two main rebel groups in the western province of Darfur, says the relative laxity of the regime in its dealings with leading academics in Khartoum is not a sign of enlightenment but a sign of temporary weakness.

"Nothing has been changed in the essentials. Now there is a kind of freedom for some of the Northerners. The regime is trying to reconcile itself with the North because the other parts of Sudan - East, South, Darfur - are all in revolt and they need to incorporate the people in the North onto their side," he says.

The rebellion in Darfur was itself partly inspired by the underground publication in 2000 of the Black Book , a remarkable critique of the domination of Sudan by a small Arab elite. This dry academic, statistic-laden document, of which there are now believed to be 50,000 illicit photocopies across Sudan, was written by an anonymous group of 14 authors, many of whom are believed to have been members of Khartoum's academic establishment. It became a call to arms and for this reason, Azraq believes, the al-Bashir regime may be more sensitive than ever to the threat posed by free expression in academe.

"It is just a question of which academics they see as a threat. People involved in the Justice and Equality Movement would be immediately arrested if they were uncovered. Our people have to operate underground. They cannot even dare to express their views," he says. He says the same would apply to academics affiliated to the southern liberation group the Sudan People's Liberation Army and Turabi's Islamists. The regime, many of whose senior leaders are former Khartoum faculty members, is picking its targets selectively.

For famous professors such as al-Hardalo and Elgaddal that may mean a temporary respite, but for those such as Idriss, Adam and Ahmed, arrest, torture and death at the hands of local security police are still a real danger.

And the Government is not the only force in Sudan in the business of destroying intellectual freedom. Bona Malwal, a southern Sudanese academic and senior research fellow in international relations at St Anthony's College, Oxford, was until five years ago a supporter of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

"You can say what you like provided you make sure that that is what the SPLA wants you to say. In some respects the situation is even worse in the South," says Malwal, a former Minister of Culture under the previous Numeiri regime.

"I've known individuals arrested (by the SPLA) never to be seen again," he says. "The Government in Khartoum doesn't want people to be critical of it and wants its own policies to be supported. That is the same for the SPLA, but as far as the SPLA is concerned the surveillance and reporting are very extensive. The basic principle of a liberation movement is surely about giving people freedom, but these people are not about that. The two sides are similar to each other in that respect."

We would like to thank Gamal Ibrahim of Nottingham Trent University, organiser of the Sudan Research Group, for his help in researching this article.

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