Apostasy and Adultery Trials Take Sudan Back to Dark Days

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(Bloomberg) -- The tiny congregation was deep in prayer when armed officers stormed their church. Four men, converts to Christianity from Islam, were brought to a local police station. All were charged with apostasy, which can carry the death penalty.

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Such oppression is becoming more prevalent in Sudan, a country that was supposed to have put years of harsh Islamist rule behind it. This summer has also seen authorities in a southern state impose a death-by-stoning sentence for adultery and the emergence of a puritanical police force that is reinforcing laws that banned women from wearing trousers and has cracked down on alcohol dealers in the capital, Khartoum.

They are just the latest signs that the military, which seized power in October, is rolling back the democratic gains of the 2019 revolt that ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir after three decades. At least 100 pro-democracy activists have been killed and many more jailed by security forces as army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan cracks down on opposition.

The US and European Union are trying in vain to pressure the military to govern with civilian politicians, a formula that worked to bring the country in from the cold after Bashir. But officials from the former leader’s National Congress Party are regaining key posts in what activists say is a full-blown counter-revolution. The army, meanwhile, controls the lion’s share of the economy’s most productive sectors, including agricultural conglomerates, banks and medical import companies.

“The coup created a situation like there was never a revolution,” said Omayma Amin Elmardi, director of the National Sudanese Women Association.

Mohammed Haroun, a 22-year-old student among the four men arrested in the town of Zalingi in June, said they were questioned about their beliefs.

Back home after being released on bail, Haroun said security forces have kept up the pressure. “Militias and armed men around the house sometimes fire guns in the air to make us scared,” he said. The spokesperson for the national police didn’t reply to calls seeking comment.

In another case of people being targeted over religion, a Christian leader and his three children are suspected to have been murdered in West Darfur in July, according to the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies. The group is calling for Sudanese authorities to protect all citizens, stop the harassment of Christians, ensure the respect for religious rights and guarantee freedom of worship.

Read more on the October 2021 military coup

In Khartoum, a newly formed police unit in charge of “morals” is reinforcing public order laws that banned women from wearing trousers and the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Its forces last month raided the home of Hanan, an alcohol seller in the El-Deim neighborhood of Khartoum, confiscating his wares and taking his money. “We are back to the dark days of police blackmail and beatings,” he said. Two other alcohol sellers also reported having their premises raided.

In Sudan’s provinces, meanwhile, violence has surged between tribal groups and drawn in government forces, particularly in Darfur, Blue Nile state and Kassala city where clashes erupted last month as part of a widespread breakdown in law and order that has led to growing fragmentation among ethnic groups.

A further deterioration in Sudan’s social fabric could spur instability in an already turbulent region with a civil war ongoing in Ethiopia, an Islamist insurgency wreaking havoc in Somalia and unrest in South Sudan.

Sudan’s economy is tanking, cut off from billions of dollars in assistance from the US, the EU and World Bank and facing spiraling commodity prices and throttled trade. Inflation is over 125% and a hunger crisis is brewing in parts of the country.

Following the ouster of Bashir, the transitional government had attempted to usher in a new era, separating religion from the state and introducing reforms that included revising the school curriculum to restore classes in philosophy, music and theater.

Gains were arguably most important for women, who played a major role in the massive protests that led to Bashir’s demise. Female genital mutilation was outlawed and women no longer needed the consent of their husbands or male guardians to travel with their children. The nation got its first-ever female chief justice.

Now “the same narrative that the last regime used against women is coming back,” said Fatima Alabbas, who served as a consultant to interim premier Abdallah Hamdok. She cited as an example the case of 20-year-old Maryam Alsyed Tiyrab, accused of adultery and sentenced to death-by-stoning in White Nile State in July — even though she was already separated from her husband before meeting someone else.

Tiyrab is living with her family while the court decides a final judgment. The four Christian men in Zalingi are also waiting to learn their fate. According to one report, apostasy last year carried a death sentence in only about 10 countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Yemen.

“Reforms proposed by the transitional government were stopped,” said Abdalla Didan of Sudan, an analyst at the Khartoum-based Sudan Democracy First Group. “Shariah laws are still being implemented.”

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