Safia Ishaq Mohammed Issa v Republic of Sudan
Safia Ishaq Mohammed Issa was arbitrarily arrested and detained, beaten and gang raped by Sudanese State agents in 2011 after participating in pro-democracy youth rallies as a student in Khartoum, Sudan. Safia’s case highlights continued concerns of arbitrary arrests and sexual and gender-based violence (“SGBV”) against women, protestors, and human rights activist, committed with impunity by Sudanese security forces.
At the time of the events, Safia was a Sudanese student who had graduated from the Fine Arts College of the University of Sudan in Khartoum with an exhibition on the role of women in society. On 13 February 2011, Safia was arbitrarily arrested, detained and tortured by agents of the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (“NISS”) because of her participation in student protests and her affiliation with Girifna, a non-violent resistance movement, and the Youth Forum for Social Peace.
Safia was taken to a NISS facility, where she was interrogated about her alleged participation in student rallies, regime change activities, and communism, all whilst being subjected to beatings and verbal abuse. After the interrogations, she was repeatedly raped by three men, allegedly NISS agents.
On 16 February 2011, Safia reported the crimes to national authorities, including the Attorney General, who refused to register her complaint. While the police requested her to undergo a medical examination at the hospital which resulted in a medical report , Safia was not informed about any investigation. On the contrary, she was threatened, accused of lying, and harassed by the authorities to discourage her from pursuing the case.
As a result of those threats, Safia had to flee to South Sudan on 18 February 2011. On 21 February 2011, a video of her statement, the medical report, the police record of her statement and her complaint to the Attorney General were published online, after which threats against her and her family intensified. She subsequently fled to Uganda and sought refuge in France, where she was granted asylum on 31 March 2012.
Safia’s lawyer was also subject to threats and intimidation. She was arrested in her office by NISS officers, and had Safia’s case file confiscated. She also had to sought refuge abroad, and was granted asylum in the UK on 23 April 2012.
ACTION FOR JUSTICE
On 26 March 2013 REDRESS and ACJPS filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights denouncing violations of a number of Safia’s rights, including freedom from torture, non-discrimination and equality, right to liberty and security, freedom of expression, association and assembly, right to appeal and defence, freedom of movement and residence, and right to health.
At its 55th ordinary session (28 April – 12 May 2014) the Commission deemed the case admissible.
On 25 July 2014, REDRESS and ACJPS submitted arguments on the merits of the case. They argued that Sudan had violated Safia’s rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights and requested the Commission to order Sudan to ensure adequate reparation, including compensation, to investigate the allegations of torture, to issue an apology and to reform laws which enable or fail to address torture and SGBV. Sudan submitted its arguments on the merits on 7 November 2015.
The Commission adopted a decision on the merits during its 72nd ordinary session (19 July – 2 August 2022) and REDRESS was formally notified of the decision on 23 August 2023
In its decision, the African Commission found several violations of the African Charter:
- It found that Safia was subjected to torture in the form of sexual abuse (rape) and that Sudan was responsible for failing to investigate the acts, identify and punish the perpetrators, in violation of article 5.
- It acknowledged that Safia was discriminated because of her gender in violation of articles 2 and 3, noting that “the use of sexual violence by perpetrators embody gendered discrimination, in that these crimes target the gender and sexual identity of victims”. This is the first time that the African Commission recognises that sexual violence automatically implies gendered discrimination.
- Acknowledging the State’s failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible, it found a violation of the rights to liberty and security (Art. 6);
- Recognising that Safia’s lawyer was unable to perform their professional functions without intimidation and harassment and that threats also targeted other human rights activists and organisations which sought to assist Safia in her quest to justice, it found a violation of the right to a fair trial (Art. 7(1)(a));
- Considering the connection between the victim’s torture and her participation in a pro-democracy demonstration, and the State’s failure to investigate such attacks, it found that her right to freedom of expression, association and assembly; (Arts. 9, 10, and 11) were violated;
- Because Safia and her lawyer were compelled to seek asylum in foreign countries due to threats and harassment from Sudanese authorities, it found a violation of freedom of movement and residence (Art. 12).
- Due to Sudan’s failure to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for the violations suffered by Safia, it found a violation of the obligation to give effect to the rights provided for in the Charter (Art. 1).
The African Commission ordered Sudan to implement several reparation measures, including to:
- Pay adequate compensation to Safia for medical expenses, physical and emotional suffering and damages;
- Undertake institutional and practical reforms to tackle SGBV and ensure redress to victims, including adequately documenting such crimes, holding perpetrators accountable, providing support to victims, identifying root causes and consequences of SGBV with the aim to eradicate it, establishing reparation programmes with victim participation, and ensuring access to comprehensive healthcare;
- Investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators responsible for the arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture of Safia;
- Adopt and implement procedural safeguards for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment based on the Robben Island Guidelines;
- Train security officers on the standards on custodial safeguards and the prohibition of torture.
Case name: Safia Ishaq Mohammed Issa v Republic of Sudan (Communication 443/13)
Court/Body: African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Date filed: 26 March 2013
Current status: Decided in August 2022
Legal representation: REDRESS and the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS)
The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) is a non-governmental organisation working to uphold human rights and the rule of law in Sudan. ACJPS documents human rights violations in Sudan, conducts strategic litigation and advocates with domestic, regional and international policymakers.
Safia’s case was also supported by a number of human rights defenders and activists, including Najlaa Ahmed, current Legal Advisor at Rights for Peace.