How a Human Rights Report Could Upend Sudan

Nabil Adeeb’s job is to uncover a massacre committed by Sudanese forces in 2019. He fears his results may lead to a coup

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How a Human Rights Report Could Upend Sudan
Sudanese forces are deployed around Khartoum’s army headquarters on June 3, 2019 as they try to disperse Khartoum’s sit-in/Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, 2019, the second-to-last day of Ramadan, they came to kill. Sudanese forces crossed the Blue Nile bridge to fire on a protest camp, burn down tents, and rape women. Young men tried to seek refuge inside the Defense Ministry in Khartoum, yet survivors say that the guards sealed the gates to keep protesters out. After the carnage, witnesses saw members from the Rapid Support Force (RSF), a powerful paramilitary, throw corpses into the Nile.

The massacre put a harrowing end to months of anti-government protests. Several weeks earlier, on April 6, activists had organized a sit-in outside the Defense Ministry. After just five days, the army yielded to popular demands and deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir. However, the military refused to hand over power to a civilian government, prompting people to stay in the streets. With the world watching in awe, protesters defied a curfew and stood their ground, until that fateful morning in June when at least 127 people were killed.

The violence sparked a global outcry, compelling Sudan’s Transitional Military Council to share power with a disjointed civilian alliance called the Forces for Freedom and Change. The new government appointed 76-year-old Nabil Adeeb to head an official inquiry into the massacre. The human rights lawyer and Coptic Christian was given three months to submit a fact-finding report to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and to press criminal charges against those who ordered the killing.

Nearly two years later, victims’ families and activists are hungry for justice, yet Adeeb still hasn’t delivered any findings. Aware of the sensitivity of his work, Adeeb is certain that his inquiry will have a major, even devastating, impact on his country. Speaking to me from the Coptic Club in Khartoum, he warned, “the result could lead to a coup d’état or to mass unrest in the streets.”

Adeeb’s life corresponds with Sudan’s tumultuous history. Now an old man, he faces barriers to justice that plagued his country in the past. In October 1964, he recalls returning to Khartoum from Cairo, where he studied law, to celebrate the civilian overthrow of Ibrahim Abboud’s military regime. Back then, Adeeb was a fierce supporter of the Sudanese Communist Party, which played a central role in leading demonstrations and labor strikes during the revolution.

After the uprising, a number of members of the ensuing civilian cabinet called for the arrest of strongmen from the former regime, but a political crisis halted their ambitions in January 1965.

A dispute over the rules and timing of the upcoming elections spawned a tense standoff between left-leaning forces and more conservative and religious political parties, according to the historian Willow Berridge, Ph.D., from Newcastle University. In her account, the former wanted to award half of the seats in the next parliament to workers’ representatives, while the latter objected on the basis that it was undemocratic.

A month later, the Umma Party, which opposed the leftist bloc, rallied their militant, religious supporters to protest a proposal to postpone elections. The Communist Party and their secular allies coveted the extra time to pass reforms that would improve their odds in the upcoming vote.

The show of force by the Umma Party thwarted those plans and brought about a political deadlock. Unable to find common ground, the crisis led to the resignation of the first interim government. An elected parliament eventually assumed power that summer and granted a general amnesty to Abboud’s regime. In retrospect, the pardon signaled to coup plotters that if they overthrew the government, they wouldn’t face consequences after falling from grace.

Indeed, a group of military officers deposed the elected government on the back of communist slogans in 1969. Adeeb, then impressionable and naive, embraced the new regime. “I was stupid,” he told me in hindsight. “I thought they would steer the country in the right direction.”

To Adeeb’s dismay, Sudan’s new ruler, Jaafar Nimeiry, abandoned his communist beliefs and leaned into political Islam, even going so far as to impose shariah in 1983. After Nimeiry was deposed two years later amid a spiraling economy that triggered a popular uprising, key members of his security forces were dismissed, and a small group was put on trial. Seeking revenge, members from Nimeiry’s old guard backed al-Bashir’s coup in 1989.

“There is potential for a similar scenario to repeat itself today,” warns Berridge, author of “Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: ‘The Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985.”

Adeeb agrees that a backlash may be inevitable, but he promises to uphold the integrity of his mandate. He said that he will only consider evidence, not political implications, when pressing charges. He then attributed the delay of the investigation to the unrealistic deadline he was given to mount a task this large. Adeeb added that his committee has spoken to hundreds of witnesses and that the inquiry is steadily progressing. Despite his assurances, his team still hasn’t assessed numerous online videos that show security forces dispersing the sit-in.

While nobody on Adeeb’s committee has the expertise to authenticate the footage, he is permitted to request assistance from the African Union (AU). However, Adeeb said that the AU is unable to provide the technical support he needs, so he is soliciting help from Western experts. Last December, more than a year after the inquiry was launched, he said he submitted a request to the prime minister to expand his mandate but is still waiting for an answer.

The camera angles from some of the videos, he says, indicates that the attackers filmed their own atrocities — a detail he finds difficult to accept.

Adeeb said he desperately wants experts to inform his analysis of footage he has seen online. The camera angles from some of the videos, he says, indicates that the attackers filmed their own atrocities — a detail he finds difficult to accept.

However, war criminals have filmed and celebrated their abuses for decades. During the Nuremberg trials in 1945, American Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson famously told the International Military Tribunal, “we will show you their own films” in reference to the evidence he accrued against the Nazis.

The most recent example is the case of Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander from the self-described Libyan National Army who was assassinated in March. Four years ago, the International Criminal Court indicted him for executing prisoners of war and noncombatants in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. It was the first time the ICC issued an arrest warrant based solely on evidence it found on social media, thanks to several videos al-Werfalli’s peers filmed and uploaded online.

Sudanese security forces may have also incriminated themselves. Adeeb entertains the possibility, yet he lends equal weight to outlandish conspiracies. He frequently notes that some videos of the violent dispersal ended up on Al-Jazeera. It’s no secret that Qatar owns Al-Jazeera, which provides favorable coverage to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. For Adeeb, that single detail hints at a broader Qatari plot. He speculates that Al-Jazeera may have aired videos of government forces taking part in the massacre to shield the real culprits: Islamist cells from the former regime that operate in a deep or parallel state.

“Al-Jazeera is a big question mark,” he told me. “Why Al-Jazeera?”

The RSF propagates a similar conspiracy. The force evolved out of the tribal “Janjaweed” militias from the western province of Darfur, which mounted a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and arguably genocide, at the behest of al-Bashir’s regime in 2003. The leader of the force, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — better known as Hemeti — claims that imposters bought RSF uniforms from street markets and infiltrated his units on the eve of the massacre.

While few people believed him, Hemeti became the deputy head of the Military Council in the transitional government. Flushed with power and wealth, he has doubled down on his alibi and stepped-up efforts to launder his reputation at home and abroad.

Enter Dickens and Madson, a Canadian public relations agency that inked a deal with Hemeti in 2019. In their Montreal office last summer, Ari Ben-Menashe, the head of the firm, echoed his client’s account of the massacre. “Hemeti said it was Muslim Brotherhood guys that dressed up in his uniforms, and I’m inclined to believe him,” he told me with a grin.

Open-source experts have pieced together a different story. Just one month after the massacre, BBC Africa Eye published their investigation based on more than 300 videos that protesters recorded with their smartphones. The footage shows uniformed RSF fighters working in tandem with the military and police to break up the protest camp.

The cross-coordination suggests that the dispersal was ordered by high-ranking officers and not instigated by infiltrators. In some videos, the military steps aside for the RSF to pursue protesters, which contrasts starkly with how soldiers behaved two months earlier. In the days leading up to al-Bashir’s ouster, mid-ranking soldiers clashed with rival security forces to protect the sit-in.

Human Rights Watch also viewed photos and videos of the violent dispersal. The evidence showed government forces insulting and mocking detainees, according to a report the rights group released in November 2019. The report cited one clip of uniformed RSF fighters forcing protesters to crawl in puddles of water. Some of the attackers identified themselves as belonging to the RSF. Victims also said they could tell from the accent of the perpetrators that they came from Darfur.

Last February, new drone footage — possibly uploaded by a rogue member of the RSF — surfaced on YouTube. Rawan Shaif, an expert in open-source intelligence with The Sentry, a policy team tracing dirty money throughout Africa, said the videos corroborated the findings of the BBC and Human Rights Watch.

In one video, Shaif spotted thousands of fighters and hundreds of tactical vehicles belonging to the RSF and police. Multiple security agencies and the military also clearly coordinate to surround the sit-in. Given the cooperation that preceded the attack, Shaif concludes that government forces must have received orders from the tops of their chains of command. There is no way, she told me, that “imposters” could have purchased that many uniforms and assembled that many armed pickup trucks to launch an assault that huge.

Despite the damning footage, Shaif fears that Adeeb is focusing on the wrong details. When I relayed his suspicions about Al-Jazeera, she found them deeply troubling.

“What about the hundreds of videos that didn’t turn up on Al-Jazeera?” said Shaif. “I think there is partly a lack of will from the committee to prosecute the actual perpetrators out of fear of a backlash.”

“People say that I’m frightened, but if I was frightened then I would have wrapped up the investigation quickly,” Adeeb told me. “Nobody under suspicion would celebrate an investigation taking this long.”

Adeeb cites his track record to defend his integrity. For years, he provided legal representation to opponents of al-Bashir’s regime, earning him the respect of human rights activists. However, he came under heavy criticism for defending the former head of intelligence, Salah Gosh, when he was accused of plotting a coup in 2012. Gosh was one of the most feared men from the former regime, yet Adeeb believed that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he was entitled to a fair defense. One year later, Gosh was pardoned by al-Bashir due to a lack of evidence against him.

Looking back, defending Gosh prepared Adeeb for the public scrutiny he’s enduring now. The local press frequently criticizes Adeeb, while trolls harass him on social media. Not long ago, he saw a fake photo of himself dressed in an RSF uniform posted on Facebook. As the image generated likes and comments, he realized that he was losing the public’s trust.

Many people fear that Adeeb will reinforce a climate of impunity if he absolves senior military officers from blame, like what happened in 1965. One Sudanese official with knowledge of the investigation, but who isn’t permitted to comment on the record, warned me that youth should brace themselves for disappointment. “My expectation is that the committee will establish what took place and assign responsibility to low-level officers,” he said.

Without the catharsis of justice, many people will struggle to move on from that harrowing day. People like Sulima Ishaq Sharif, a psychologist, can’t stop thinking about the moments leading up to the massacre. Hours before it happened, she was drinking coffee with young men who were making plans to cook breakfast for protesters on Eid al-Fitr, the festive end to Ramadan. Later that night, she saw dozens of RSF pickup trucks parked on a nearby bridge. Power soon went out throughout the city, while rumors spread that government forces were going to storm the sit-in.

After the massacre, Sharif was terrified. She learned that two of the men she had coffee with the night before were killed. She told Sky News and BBC Africa that protesters from the sit-in were expecting to die at any moment. In the following days, she feared that security forces were going to hunt down activists that got away. Even now, she still can’t believe she survived. “They wanted to finish us. They wanted to kill us all,” Sharif told me in her office, with somber resignation.

Sharif’s story encapsulates the collective trauma and anger in Khartoum. Many, like her, want justice for the scores of people who died on June 3. Failing to deliver could breed discontent and anger and bury whatever faith remains in the transitional government. However, Sudan could also pay a heavy price if Adeeb presses charges against senior security officers in the Military Council. Anyone indicted may try to overthrow the civilian half of the government and consolidate power or back others who would. Adeeb is under no illusions, nor is he in a rush to finish the investigation. He told me, “Whatever we decide will destabilize the country.”

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