Sudanese activists Ali Agab and Abdel Monim Elgak were forced to flee their homes for defending human rights. Ahead of Sunday's referendum on the future of South Sudan, they tell Amnesty International about the challenges they face and what keeps them positive about the future.
Abdel Monim Elgak is an outspoken advocate on justice, accountability and human rights violations in Sudan. Amnesty International campaigned on his behalf when in 2008 he was detained and tortured by the National Intelligence and Security Services. He later fled northern Sudan. Monim and his colleagues have filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the Sudanese authorities over their treatment in detention.
Ali Agab is a prominent Sudanese human rights lawyer who worked at the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development. After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against President Omar Al Bashir, the authorities closed down the centre and Ali sought asylum in the UK. He currently works with the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies.
What sparked your interest in human rights? MONIM: I first learned about human rights through my involvement in the student movements at university. During my final year at the University of Khartoum, human rights violations against students were taking place, and one of my colleagues was arrested. The next day we found his body on the street.
ALI: In secondary school I joined a small group of students, the Democratic Front, calling for students’ rights. That was when I started to know about rights and defending people, and speaking on behalf of your colleagues and your own people. I continued with the Democratic Front at university. In those days, many of our colleagues were arrested and tortured.
The atmosphere at the university was very hostile. So when I graduated from the faculty of law, I started to defend people and then I joined the Sudanese Human Rights Defenders Group, the first human rights organization in Sudan. In 2000, I trained in human rights at the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies in Gambia.
What are the main challenges in the struggle against human rights abuses in Sudan? MONIM: I will point to three major challenges. One is wars and conflicts that are basically started and fuelled by the central government, whether in South Sudan, Darfur, eastern Sudan or in the far north. This is one of the main challenges – bringing real and genuine peace. The second challenge is the combination of dictatorship and political Islamist ideologists who have been systematically violating human rights for more than two decades.
The third challenge is the culture of racism and discrimination, whether against other ethnic groups or discrimination against women, or against other religious groups.
ALI: As a lawyer working in human rights, I think the main challenge is the culture of impunity and how strongly it is maintained in Sudan. The judiciary is not independent and the attorneys working in the Ministry of Justice are not independent and the police are not working as an independent neutral body.
The security forces are not defending or supporting or helping the Sudanese people. They are just working as the people who have to defend and maintain the position of the NCP [National Congress Party, the ruling party]. It is very difficult to achieve justice in Sudan.
If you could change one thing about the situation in Sudan, what would it be? MONIM: I would change the culture of racism, discrimination and marginalization that is encouraged by the government of Sudan. The Sudanese people continue to pay the price for this in their daily lives through various conflicts within the country.
ALI: An end to more than 20 years of one-party rule that excludes Sudanese people from power. With real democracy and stronger civil society, the Sudanese people could at least start going in the right way towards peace and security.
How does your work impact on your life? MONIM: The effects of my work on my life are both positive and negative. My work has enriched and enlarged my vision of the world. And at the same time, one of the negative things is being away from my original social environment twice – living in exile in the 1990s and currently living in involuntary exile.
ALI: Being a human rights lawyer and human rights defender in Sudan is always risky. But I always feel proud of my work, defending people and doing my best at least to give a voice to those people who are vulnerable.
What keeps you motivated when times are hard? MONIM: When it gets hard I become even more motivated. Hard times are the time to be motivated, creative and innovative.
ALI: My clients always used to come to me after being abused by security forces, the police, or rebel forces. They felt down and hated being Sudanese. But by doing my best to bring their perpetrators to justice, and by demanding that they will be held accountable, my clients at least felt that someone cared and gave them hope. When it gets hard, I always remember my clients.
Do you have a message for our readers? MONIM: I want to thank Amnesty International activists and members for their support during my detention.
ALI: I have seen for myself that the victims in Darfur and other areas of Sudan really appreciate and understand the work done by Amnesty International. So keep your activism on behalf of people who are not able to make their voice heard. Please remember that justice may be delayed, but one day it will be achieved. The way may be long but people have to fight for justice.
This interview originally appeared in Amnesty International's magazine, The Wire.