Sudan’s judicial reforms gain increased criticism

Sudan has repealed several Islamic laws that have long been criticised for violating human rights, particularly the rights of women. Justice Minister Nasr al-Din Abdel-Bari announced the amendments on 11 July after they were approved by the governing Sovereign Council. The amendments are among sweeping social and political reforms the civilian-led transitional government pledged to undertake more than a year after long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was toppled by the military following popular protests against his 29-year rule.

What are the changes to the penal code?

The amendments to the Sudanese penal code include the abolition of the death penalty for apostasy, a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) and public flogging, and freedom for non-Muslims to import, sell and consume alcohol. The repealed laws were first introduced in 1983 by then President Jaafar al-Nimeiry. They were incorporated into Sudanese criminal law during Bashir’s rule in 1991. The controversial apostasy law has consistently been condemned by rights groups for violating the 2005 constitution that provides for freedom of worship. Until now, punishment for apostasy – abandoning Islam through actions or words – was death.

The new laws permit the drinking of alcohol for Sudanese non-Muslims, who constitute about three percent of the population. They also ban flogging as official punishment for infractions such as indecent dressing by women. However, non-Muslims can still be punished if they are found drinking with Muslims, Paris-based Sudan Tribune website quoted the justice minister as saying. FGM, widely practised in Sudan, has now been criminalised with a penalty of up to three years in prison. Under the new laws, women no longer need permission from their husbands or male relatives to travel with their children.

Sudan’s history with Sharia law

Sharia (Islamic) law was first imposed by Nimeiry in 1983. It was the main influence of all legislation in Sudan’s 1968 and 1973 constitutions. Bashir entrenched Islamic law after he took power in a military coup in 1989.

In 2005, Sudan adopted an interim national constitution and removed some references to Sharia law. However, the new constitution included Sharia-derived criminal, civil and personal legal codes, as well as Sharia-mandated punishments.

Nimeiry’s introduction of Islamic law was one of the main triggers of the 22-year-long civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, which culminated in South Sudan’s secession in July 2011.

In November 2019, the transitional government repealed the Public Order Act, a moral policing law that regulated personal behaviour and individual expression, including prohibiting wearing of “revealing” clothes and drinking of alcohol. Those convicted under the law faced prison sentences, fines and flogging. Activists argued that vague language in the Public Order Act gave the police and judges excess powers to mistreat women.

How have the amendments been received?

Reactions to the amendments highlight continued political and social divisions in Sudan. Civil rights and women’s groups have welcomed the changes. Hala al-Karib, regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), described the amendments as “a good step in the right direction”. Karib, however, called for further reforms to remove “all the outdated discriminations” against women imposed by the ousted regime.

On 13 July, columnist Zuheir al-Sarraj wrote in Al-Jaridah Arabic newspaper that the new laws were “necessary to be able to proceed on the road of democratic transformation and ensure the freedom and dignity of Sudanese citizens”. Religious leaders and conservative politicians have vowed to fight the new laws. Influential Salafist religious leader Abdel-Hay Yusuf, Islamist State of Law and Development Party leader Mohamed Ali al-Jazuli and Just Peace Forum party chief, al-Tayyib Mustafa, are among personalities that have rejected the changes. They have vowed to mobilise their supporters to hold nationwide protests to topple the government. Yusuf and Jazuli have openly appealed to the military to topple the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, which they termed “a foreign project”. “Uprooting this obscene government is a mandatory duty and obligation of every capable person,” Yussuf said.

What could happen next?

Sudan’s transitional government is struggling to address myriad social, political and economic issues amid rising discontent over the slow progress of reforms. The judicial reforms are proof of the government’s commitment to upholding human rights and promoting civil liberties that had been suppressed under Bashir. But Islamists still wield considerable influence in Sudan’s political and social affairs and will seek to capitalise on the amendments to instigate unrest and undermine the transitional government.

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