- As the April general elections in Sudan are approaching, human rights groups warn of political repression and intimidation in the north and the south. A "free, fair, and credible vote" in Sudan seems unlikely, they hold.
According to research by the US-based group Human Rights Watch, both the Khartoum unity government and the autonomous government of South Sudan "are violating rights and restricting freedoms critical to a fair poll, including freedoms of expression and of assembly." The group had sent a five-month research missions to Sudan.
"Conditions in Sudan are not yet conducive for a free, fair, and credible election," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the situation it is unlikely that the Sudanese people will be able to vote freely for leaders of their choice."
In northern Sudan, the Khartoum government was said to continue to arrest and detain activists and opposition party members, break up public gatherings, prevent public meetings, and to control the state-owned media - "all significant obstacles to free, fair, and credible elections," the report said.
The human rights researchers found government repression against the media in Khartoum. While print press has enjoyed more freedom in recent months in Sudan, the Press Council, a government regulatory body, summoned two editors in March regarding articles critical of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party.
In the embattled western region of Darfur, "continued insecurity will be an obstacle to holding free and fair elections," the group added. "Large areas of Darfur remain inaccessible to election officials and candidates, and insecurity caused by banditry and ongoing conflict has restricted candidates' freedom of movement." Two opposition party candidates were shot at and robbed in March only.
But also in South Sudan, a region under control of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) that is to hold a referendum over independence next year, political repression was pervasive, the researchers found.
Although incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention decreased after the voter registration period in November and December, Human Rights Watch documented several incidents of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detention, and physical assault and torture of members of political parties opposed to the ruling SPLM by security forces during the nomination and campaigning period from January to March.
The researchers found that the media environment in South Sudan had "deteriorated significantly in recent weeks." For example, on 3 March, armed security officials stormed the offices of 'Bakhita FM,' a community-based radio station run by the Catholic Church, and 'Liberty FM', a private radio station, and arrested the two directors at the stations. The incident occurred after 'Liberty FM' aired an interview with the campaign manager of an independent political candidate in Juba.
"They threatened to shut down our station, confiscate our equipment and bring me before the law if I aired a similar political program," the director of 'Liberty FM' told Human Rights Watch. Police also threatened the director of 'Bakhita FM' and warned her not to air political programmes but focus on religious programmes instead.
"For a free, fair, and credible election, it is essential that all journalists and media organizations are allowed to operate freely," Ms Gagnon said. "They should be able to do their work without official interference," she emphasised.
Sudan is scheduled to hold general elections, its first in 25 years to be held in both north and south, from 11 to 18 April. Voters will cast ballots for the President of Sudan, the Khartoum national parliament, President of autonomous South Sudan, South Sudan's parliament, and governors and assemblies for the 25 states of Sudan.
While the Khartoum government is considered a pariah state among Western governments, with President al-Bashir wanted by the International Criminal Court, South Sudan has had massive Western donor and diplomatic support on its probable way towards independence. A democratic development has been a demand for getting this Western donor support.
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