North Africa, West Asia

Sudan: the government and its obsession with pornography

"They kept asking me if I have a boyfriend; when I was kissed last …they threatened to take naked pictures of me or create a porn film featuring me." 

Reem Abbas
21 September 2016

Sudanese police fired tear gas and beat women protesting outside a Sudanese court during the trial of a female journalist accused of violating the Islamic dress code by wearing trousers in public, 2009. Press Association/ And Raouf. All rights reserved.It was July 2012 and I was standing with an acquaintance inside the Haj Yousif court-house as we were waiting to attend the trial of several activists. The acquaintance, a young woman, had just been released from detention by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and was telling me her story. As I took mental notes, I kept thinking of my best friend who was asked during an NISS interrogation if she was a lesbian. This was because they had seen pictures of us together on a boat on my birthday. 

In 2012 and 2013, as a wave of mass protests swept Sudan, a number of tweeps confirmed that pornography websites, which were normally blocked by the National Telecommunications Council (NTC), had been unblocked. Pornography was a tool the NTC started to use to control the masses. It was as if they were saying: stay home and get off, but don't go out and protest!

Over the past few years, one of the tools used to suppress women activists has been the threat of their images being pornographized. But it seems that this tactic has reached a whole new level.

The TRACKS trial

The courthouse was full that day, September 4, 2016. It was the second session of a long-awaited trial, one that began six months after the Khartoum Centre for Training and Human Development (TRACKS) was raided by the NISS.

This centre was one of Sudan's few remaining civil society organizations; they provided training on human rights as well as language and IT diplomas. It had also been raided the year before, in February 2015. 

For most of 2015, the centre’s director, administrative manager and a trainer, who had been conducting a workshop at the time of the raid, were embroiled in a legal battle facing capital charges. By late February 2016, the State Crimes Prosecution Office had found no evidence to continue the investigation and the director of the centre was called in to retrieve the confiscated equipment.

The honeymoon only lasted a few days. Another raid took place in February 2016, and the 2015 case was re-opened in addition to another case being filed against the director of the centre, the centre’s female administrative manager as well as two volunteers, one freelance accountant and a visitor who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were all arrested at the time of the raid and summoned for several weeks after.

The six civil society actors, including a Cameroonian student who is studying in Sudan, sat in the courthouse that Sunday waiting to be tried for the 2016 case. It felt as if Sudan’s entire civil society was on trial that day, with pornography being used as a political tool. The personal is always political in Sudan.

During the session, the plaintiff exhibited a pornographic film that was allegedly found on the laptop of one of the defendants, Mustafa Adam. They accused another defendant, Midhat Afif Al-Deen of also having pornographic films on his laptop.

To the defendant’s lawyers, the film was irrelevant to the case as charges of waging war against the state and undermining the constitutional authority were being brought against them. They also argued that the plaintiff had not shown evidence on whether the films had been downloaded before or after their arrest.

I personally understood this tactic in a completely different manner. 

First of all, the plaintiff was fully aware that this case would arouse public interest and that the international community would also be interested as human rights defenders were on trial. They seem to have believed that damaging the defendants’ public image and presenting them as immoral, as understood by conservative Sudanese society, would sow confusion within the solidarity movement.

This tactic is very dangerous. Their goal was to initiate a smear campaign that would change the entire course of the trial and result in the lawyers being distracted from the actual charges brought against their clients. As a result, both the lawyers and the solidarity movement would waste precious time defending the defendants instead of actually campaigning against the bogus charges against them, regardless of the fact that many do not believe the state should have the right to persecute anyone for material found on personal devices.

Secondly, as the NISS confiscated personal laptops, phones and other equipment from the defendants, their personal lives came under scrutiny from a state that enjoys these so-called public order articles it hides behind. It is not uncommon for the state to criminalize, control and persecute the behaviour, dress-code and personal attitudes of Sudanese men and women. However, the court case used personal files to persecute civil society at large by showing personal pictures of Midhat Afif Al-Deen and his family and friends. 

A picture of me with a close friend at her farewell party was also shown as part of the evidence. Midhat was there, he either took the picture or it had been shared with him on Facebook. I honestly can’t remember. We were not naked, but our headscarves were around our shoulders. This picture was shown as pornography because the state pornographizes women's bodies regardless of the dress-code and for this reason, the article on "dress-code", article 152 , is vague and does not explain anything.

Our pictures were shown to reiterate their point that these were the women of Sudanese civil society. Their goal was to portray civil society actors as individuals who watch pornography and the women as especially immoral because they are uncovered and even smiling in pictures.

Sudanese civil society was painted as a world of debauchery and this debauchery was documented in pictures that were shown inside the courthouse, violating the privacy of the defendants and their friends. The NISS wanted to put the entire civil society on trial and in Sudan, the worst kind of trial is a moral one.

We hear about political detainees and see their pictures circulating on social media, but in a country where lawyers believe that thousands of women and men are persecuted for morality crimes, under Article 152, by the public order police (also called the community security police) we don't see or hear their stories, because society becomes the prosecutor if morality is in question.

The trial came down heavily on everyone. If we don't fight this new kind of persecution, Sudanese civil society will be doomed. Organizations have been shut down and civil society actors have been put in jail, and this last debacle was an attempt to discredit civil society at large. We cannot let this happen.

This piece was first published on 18 September 2016 here.

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