Last August, while house hunting in Omdurman, Sudan, a 19-year-old pregnant and divorced Ethiopian woman was lured to an empty property and brutally gang-raped by a group of seven young men.
Immediately after the attack, a police officer found the victim distraught and crying, but didn’t file a formal complaint of rape because it was a public holiday and the police station was closed.
Disturbingly, the rapists filmed the attack, which later surfaced via social media in January 2014. The authorities ultimately arrested everyone involved, including the victim.
Sudan’s attorney general has consistently blocked the woman from filing a rape complaint on the basis that she was under investigation for the criminal offense of offending public morality. At one point, she even faced a death sentence by stoning for adultery, as the prosecutor debated her marital status before affirming that she was divorced.
Since being arrested, she has been held in police cells and, until recently, consistently denied placement in a medical facility, despite being on the brink of giving birth.
In February, three of the perpetrators were convicted of adultery but their sentences consisted of lashes and fines. The seventh was freed due to insufficient evidence.
Meanwhile, the gang-rape victim was found guilty of committing indecent acts under section 151 of the Criminal Act. She was sentenced to one month in prison and a hefty fine has been levied against her for 5,000 Sudanese Pounds (approximately $900 USD). Her sentence has been suspended due to her pregnancy, and she has been placed under probation for six months.
Tragically, the victim’s troubles don’t end there. She is now being threatened by the court with immigration offenses, which carries a two-year prison term and subsequent deportation. Further troubling, the prosecutor has also filed criminal charges under section 146 referring to adultery, criminalizing pregnant unmarried women. An appeal has been filed on the victim’s behalf against the new criminal charges, and the court hearing on her immigration charges has been postponed until April 2.
This case highlights the overwhelming challenges women face in obtaining justice in Sudan for rape and sexual violence. There is clearly an urgent need for legal reform, especially article 149 of the criminal code referring to rape.
Under current laws, when a woman or girl reports she has been raped, she also exposes herself to possible prosecution. Incredibly, a victim has to prove her own innocence by demonstrating that the encounter was non-consensual. If she fails to do so, she is liable to be prosecuted for adultery, also known as zina. The punishment for zina is 100 lashes if the woman is not married and execution by stoning if she is married.
The law lacks clear guidelines on its interpretation and implementation, which allows judges wide discretion that is often unjust to victims seeking redress through the criminal justice system. In the Ethiopian woman’s case, even with filmed evidence of the rape, the victim was still found guilty of immoral acts. All these factors, combined with the traumatic stigma and fear of community reprisals, often deter women and girls from reporting crimes of sexual violence and make it very difficult for them to achieve justice even if they do.
Sudan is obligated under its interim Constitution of 2005 and under several international conventions to ensure that men and women are treated equally under the law and to prevent victims from being criminalized. Both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sudan is a party, echo these rights.
Equality Now is calling on Sudanese officials to demand that the prosecution drop all criminal charges against the young woman, and cease any legal action to deport her to Ethiopia; that she is promptly provided with adequate medical and psychological support as a victim and survivor of sexual violence and that immediate steps are taken to amend the Sudan Criminal Act of 1991 and the Sudan Evidence Act of 1994 to prevent the criminalization of sexual violence victims, and to ensure that women and girls who have been raped receive equal protection under the law in accordance with Sudan’s international obligations.
The brutal and unfair treatment of victims of sexual violence in Sudan means that others will also be silenced. The cycle of abuse will continue until a level playing field is ensured for everyone.