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15 Detentions Later, Sudanese Activist Amal Habbani Is More Tenacious Than Ever

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Tuesday 20 March 201811:55 am
"It was not the first time, but it was the most brutal," said Amal Habbani commenting on her recent month-long detention. It was the 15th time for the Sudanese journalist and women's rights activist to be detained and brutalized in her country, where human rights violations are alarmingly increasing. Amid a widening security crackdown, arrests have been on the rise. Habbani hit the headlines once again after being arrested on 16 January while she was covering a peaceful protest march called for by the Sudanese Communist Party against price hikes. She was released on 18 February. [caption id="attachment_71737" align="alignnone" width="900"] Habbani right after her release.[/caption]   On why the state is increasingly intolerant of such demonstrations, Habbani cited Sudan's "economic collapse".

"Rock Bottom"

"I was detained 15 times either over my opinions, thoughts and stances which I express in newspapers, or my role as a human rights activist," Habbani said. "I was also sacked before, got banned from writing in daily papers and received death threats among other forms of harassment and violation." She says what she has been subject to is not out of place; tens of men and women who have been pushing for social and political change in Sudan have suffered similar dire ramifications. "There are people who were detained, tortured and denied their bread and butter and consequently had to flee Sudan." Banned from traveling, Habbani, who said her phone was tapped, constantly receives threats. She was also beaten and insulted on many occasions. Nonetheless, she has shrugged off all such abuses while assuring that Sudan's bleakest days are still on the horizon. "Sudan is absolutely suffering an economic collapse," she said. "The situation took a turn for the worse when this regime came in power in 1989. It started as an obsessive religious administration that is not any different from Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State [militant groups]. It has destroyed the state institutions and replaced the principles of citizenship in a civil state with superstitious beliefs in a corruption-plagued theocracy, not to mention activating the code of the clans and tribes." "We've hit rock bottom when the new state budget was declared. There is no production to support the economy of a country through which the world's longest river runs while all its land is suitable for agriculture and is rich in gold and metals. But instead of putting an end to the corruption of its representatives, the government is targeting protesters, and that's the main reason for the collapse." After the Sudanese government announced the new budget and sent it to parliament for approval in early January, it floated the local currency which caused its value to plummet. The official dollar exchange rate has been tripled ever since, with $1 exceeding SDP 18 nowadays. Adding insult to injury, Sudan has lifted subsidies on wheat; today a loaf of bread is for one Sudanese pound, which was enough to buy three. Prices of other commodities, particularly medicine, uncontrollably soared. Meanwhile, the government lost control over the price of the US dollar in the black market, which almost stands at SDP 50. Sudanese authorities initiated a clampdown on currency trading, arresting tens involved in the business. "Now the citizen cannot withdraw his money from the bank, because the government's steps have prompted a liquidity crunch," Habbani explained. Under these calamitous circumstances, the protest march was organized. While covering it, Habbani and her colleague Omar Ashari were attacked by a military force. "They circled us and started to beat us with batons and electrocuted us until we fell on the ground. I told them not to electrocute him, so they looked me screaming repeatedly 'Amal Habbani is filming us' before assaulting me," she narrated. Political activist Safia Abdul Hamid stepped in trying to prevent the assault on Habbani, only to be beaten and arrested as well. However, she was released only hours later.

Torture in Detention

By the time Habbani was transported to a security office she was exhausted and was coughing so hard. Her heartbeat became notably rapid while she was breathing heavily. She asked to see a doctor, albeit to no avail. A few days after she was detained, reports came out saying she was subject to regular torture and beating and was still unable to see a doctor. Habbani confirmed these reports, saying she was electrocuted and beaten with batons. "My health condition deteriorated in the early days as a result of the beating, and I suffered severe inflammations in the chest and ears," she said. "They tasered me in the neck and ears. My blood pressure was fluctuating; I've already suffered high blood pressure since my imprisonment in a publishing case last July." "Workers at the detention facility came and heard complaints and gave us painkillers and light medicines. A week later, I suffered severe dizziness and bleeding. I was afraid it could be a miscarriage but it stopped after four days. I was later sent to Al-Amal Hospital that is affiliated to the security apparatus and the intelligence." Habbani spent her detention in two cells which she says were horrendous. "We were six women sardined in one cell. Ventilation was bad; the air-conditioner was either too high or too low," she recalled. Her fellow detainees found a scorpion twice inside the cell, thus requested their transfer to another facility. "Hence, we became nine in one cell that looks like a tomb. We don't go out except to pray or go to the bathroom. Its door won't open except for food, which is basically low quality meals served in unhealthy plastic plates." "We didn't meet [other detainees] outside our cell, but we used to hear the coughing of Sarah Nakdallah, the Secretary General of the Umma Party. She suffers a heart disease and her condition greatly worsened inside the cell. Also, Hanady Fadel, a member of the central committee of the Communist Party, went down with Typhoid," Habbani said. "Feminist Nahid Gabralla lost consciousness three times due to low blood sugar. She could've died if it wasn't for the help of detainees who had medical background. The health of many detainees deteriorated, we used to hear the weeping or a detainee who had to pump breast milk when it's breastfeeding time. To put it in a nutshell, we suffered miserable and subhuman conditions."

Resisting the Law of Public Order

Habbani graduated from the literature faculty of the Khartoum University in 1998. She also holds a Master's degree in mass media and has been a columnist for years. She believes that writing is a tool to instigate social change and pushes for a contemporary society that is more civilized and urban. In 2000, she was fired by the company she worked for, a job she juggled with her passion for writing. Her sacking was a result of writing a short story titled "The Maid and I", which tackles maids' contractual rights. On switching to politics, Habbani said: "Through my work as a journalist I got to see the volume of corruption and injustice being practiced at the hands of the Sudanese regime. My writings shifted towards politics against a backdrop of [squandered] social rights of men and women as well as ethnic groups." Her activism was fueled by the notion that "journalism on its own will not make a difference". "I've worked a lot in the field of legal reform and freedom of expression," Habbani said, adding that she stood firmly against laws that humiliate women, especially the law of public order which she says violates women's rights the most. The law, she elaborated, is a stark encroachment on women's personal freedom as it includes articles that touch on the way they dress. The law stipulates that culprits can be flogged, fined and imprisoned. Habbani co-founded in 2008 Agras Al-Horreya (The Freedom Bells) newspaper under the slogan "the voice of the marginalized, democrats and civil society". The following year she established along with other women's rights advocates an initiative called "No to Women's Oppression", which aimed at rescinding the law of public order because it "legalizes violence against women". The initiative organized protests and rallies, among other forms of peaceful resistance while campaigning against the legislation. The initiative's members also mobilized against other laws that belittle women. When the initiative was formed, the regime was trying journalist Lobna Ahmed Hussein for wearing a "revealing outfit". She was arrested and stood trial for putting on trousers, which are prohibited for Sudanese women. In the same year, a number of male and female journalists established the Sudanese Journalists' Network, whose main aim is to push for more press freedom and peacefully resist the security forces' violent approach. "The network is operating as an independent body to defend journalists' rights. It also stands against the security apparatus' interference in journalism," Habbani said. In 2010, the Sudanese activist alongside others submitted a request to the Ministry of Justice to rescind the public order law. They were arrested and beaten up by security personnel as a result. The security apparatus the following year shut down Agras Al-Horreya on the premise that the paper became no longer Sudanese after South Sudan's secession. They also closed four other papers at the time, saying their owners belonged to South Sudan and are not eligible anymore to own papers in Sudan. Almost a month ahead of Agras Al-Horreya's closure, Habbani was arrested along with Sudanese journalist Fatima Ghazali for writing articles about a Sudanese girl who had accused security forces of raping her. In an online video, Sudanese activist Safiya Ishaq details her arrest and being rapped afterwards.

Awards and Honors

Habbani received in 2009 a UNESCO award for her articles on children's rights. She also won an Amnesty International award in 2015 for her work on children and women's rights. Local organizations such as Al-Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment -- which security forces have shut down -- have also honored Habbani for her efforts and writings that support freedoms and human rights in the face of oppression. She also received an accolade from the Journalists for Human Rights, a Sudanese organization based in Kenya because it is banned in Sudan. Habbani stresses Sudanese authorities have been committing widespread violations, saying many people have been detained since last January. Meanwhile, the regime is still cracking down on papers to prevent them from covering the price hikes and ensuing protests. She says her detention was yet another push for her to carry on, adding that it has given her a morale boost. "The best thing about my latest detention was the huge solidarity campaign that was triggered to support me and my fellow female detainees. On a personal level, it showed me how much many Sudanese people love me and appreciate my activities," Habbani concluded.
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