As hundreds of protesters took the streets of Sudan’s city of Omdurman, activists across the East African country called for sustained anti-government action to challenge emergency laws launched by President Omar al-Bashir last month.
The one-year state of emergency announced on February 22 gives state authorities extended powers to detain protesters and crack down on public gatherings, but activists who have been protesting against Bashir for nearly three months say they are more determined than ever to take to the streets.
“Bashir’s announcement has only escalated the situation and made us more insistent on protesting to make our voices heard,” said Ahmed, an activist from Khartoum, whose real name was changed for his safety.
“We heard Bashir’s announcement of the new laws while we waited in the streets so that we could react immediately. Sudan’s streets have been teaming with demonstrators since,” added Ahmed, who has taken part in the protests since they began on December 19.
Bashir’s announcement has only escalated the situation and made us more insistent on protesting to make our voices heard.
Ahmed, Sudanese activist
Protests, sparked by a government decision to increase the price of bread, quickly developed into nationwide anti-government demonstrations calling for al-Bashir to step down.
Al-Bashir has since acknowledged the protests and taken several steps, which included quitting his position as chairman of the ruling party, in an attempt to appease the demonstrators. But activists say their demands have still not been met.
Extensive new powers
The presidential decree announced last month bans protests, public gatherings and political activities. It also gives the police and security forces more power to monitor individuals and to carry out inspections.
Under the new emergency laws, security forces are allowed to detain suspected individuals and seize private property if they believe it is being used to plan political activities.
Sudan’s parliament is expected to vote on whether or not to continue the state of emergency.
Analysts and human rights activists say the new laws are unprecedented in Sudan and can be used to stifle any resistance against the government.
“The state of emergency only makes the status quo much worse than it already was. It augments the already-extensive powers of the state security apparatus, namely the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), in search, seizure and arrest,” said Muhammad Osman, an independent Sudanese analyst.
“They [security services] can now arbitrarily detain people for any period of time, search any building they want, confiscate any assets.
“The state of emergency will also allow the government to try people for anti-government comments on social media and will set up emergency courts to hand down summary sentences of prison against protesters,” explained Osman.
Special emergency courts, established to prosecute people arrested for participating in demonstrations, have already seen more than 800 protesters placed on trial since al-Bashir’s imposed state of emergency.
More defiant protesters
Ahmed, who was among a group of 69 protesters put on trial after being detained during a demonstration in Burri, east of Khartoum, on February 28, says these new measures have not intimidated him and his activist friends.
“I was arrested and detained for several days before being put on trial at a special court, and then released along with 66 others last Wednesday,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
Our immediate reaction to Bashir’s announcement was to call on the Sudanese people to protest in the streets, and that’s exactly what happened.
Mohamed Asbat, journalist and SPA spokesperson
“The violence we experienced at the hands of the security forces was brutal and has definitely increased since the presidential decree. But our arrest has only made us more defiant to continue.”
According to Mohamed Asbat, a Sudanese journalist and spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella coalition that has led calls for nationwide protests and strikes, the new emergency powers will not stifle the protest movement.
“Our immediate reaction to Bashir’s announcement was to call on the Sudanese people to protest in the streets, and that’s exactly what happened,” Asbat told Al Jazeera.
“The streets became filled with protesters within a few minutes of the announcement and the number and intensity of the demonstrations has only been on the rise since,” he added.
Following al-Bashir’s announcement of the new laws, protesters staged anti-government protests overnight in hospitals and universities to challenge the new powers.
Several protests and a nationwide strike, which saw the participation of a large number of doctors, journalists, lawyers and pharmacists on March 5, have since been held across Sudan.
“While the state of emergency was aimed at weakening the protest movement, it has only worked in our favour, pushing us harder,” said Asbat.
Despite al-Bashir ordering on Friday the release of female protesters detained in the nationwide demonstrations, nine women were sentenced a day later to 20 lashes and one month in prison for rioting.
The move came after an emergency court sent on February 28 eight people to prison for protesting, sentencing four to five-year terms and the rest to three-year sentences.
Following Saturday’s court decision against the female protesters, the SPA released a statement on Sunday to condemn the move.
“The Sudanese people were shocked and deeply disappointed by the emergency courts’ decision to severely punish nine female protesters in Khartoum.
“We condemn the involvement of the judiciary with the emergency courts’ attempt to silence the Sudanese people and prevent us from practising our right to hold peaceful protests.”
Such prosecutions have led analysts to believe that although the immediate reaction of the protesters to the emergency laws has been to challenge them, the new powers may eventually weaken the movement.
“If the government prosecutes and sentences a large number of activists to lengthy periods in prison, the strength of the protests is likely to be affected,” told Al Jazeera.
“That, in turn, will force the leadership organising the protests, the Sudanese Professionals Association, to explore other and less costly options of resistance.”