Sudanese National Intelligence Service empowered to violate human rights

As the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) intensifies its crackdown on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association in Sudan, it provides an ominous warning about human rights in the context of upcoming general elections in April.

Since January 2015, at least 16 newspapers have had their publications confiscated on 42 different occasions by NISS. Four leading civil society organisations have been shut down with at least five others under threat of imminent closure. Several journalists report interrogation and harassment by the police and NISS agents. There is no legal basis or rationale for these actions by NISS other than to quell dissent and criticism of the National Congress Party as the general elections approach.

Though the NISS has for the last decade perpetrated human rights violations with impunity, its current human rights violations have reached unprecedented levels. The NISS has used excessive and sometimes lethal force in breaking up demonstrations, protests and rallies as well as office raids and confiscations of newspapers, perpetrated arbitrary arrests and deliberately targeted ethnic and religious minorities.

Between 2012 and 2014, the NISS arrested human rights defenders, students, activists, political opponents and journalists en masse. Most of those arrested were subsequently released without trial, but a few have been kept incommunicado, outside the protection of the law and vulnerable to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Human rights violations committed by NISS agents are seldom investigated by the Sudanese authorities.

In January, the Sudanese Parliament passed amendments to the Interim Constitution, including one extending the NISS’ mandate. The amendment to Article 151 transforms the NISS from an intelligence agency focused on information gathering, analysis and advice, to a fully-fledged security agency with a broad mandate to exercise a mix of functions usually carried out by the armed forces or law enforcement agencies. By expanding the NISS’s mandate, Parliament has not only endorsed its methods but rewarded its performance.

Conferring an intelligence agency such as the NISS with such a mandate, in addition to its already extensive powers of arrest, detention, search and seizure under the National Security Service Act (NSA), is particularly alarming in the context of the upcoming general elections in April. During the 2010 general elections, the NISS used intimidated, arrested and detained opposition candidates, voters and human rights defenders. They have the power to do a lot more now.

Neither the revised Article 151 nor the NSA explicitly or implicitly require the NISS to abide by relevant international, regional and domestic law. Will it upholdInternational Humanitarian Law during its military operations in armed conflicts in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, where the Rapid Support Force has been deployed? Will it adhere to international and regional human rights norms and standards when acting as a domestic police force elsewhere?

Either way, the new NISS is now a super-agency that can respond to any political, economic or social threat. It now has the unlimited discretion to decide what is or isn’t a danger, including the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, assembly and association.

The “new” relationship between the NISS, the military and law enforcement agencies is not articulated. The NISS is already deployed both militarily and in law enforcement. There is a risk that the NISS’s mandate, cutting across intelligence, military and law enforcement spheres, could also undermine or unduly interfere with ordinary police work thus enhancing dysfunction in the criminal justice system.

The increased mandate and powers of the NISS is already having far-reaching and negative effects on the protection and protection of human rights. Under the National Security Act, NISS agents have immunity from civil and criminal liability for acts conducted in “the course of their duty” or in “good faith.” They are only vulnerable to prosecution if the Director General of the NISS decides to lift this protection. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) opines that such a remedy, being discretionary and not subject to judicial oversight, is therefore inadequate and insufficient.

The ACHPR recently sent out a message against the impunity of the NISS, by finding the Republic of Sudan guilty for violating the rights of three human rights defenders while in NISS detention in November 2008. The decision published on 13February this year requests Sudan to pay adequate compensation to Monim Elgak, Amir Suleiman and Osman Hummeida and to also investigate and prosecute all those responsible for the illegal incarceration and torture of the three.

A human rights compliant legal framework for the NISS is needed, which subjects its arrest and detention practices to judicial oversight and ensures that NISS agents perpetrating human rights violations are held to account. The President and Parliament should demonstrate their commitment to human rights by ordering a review of the NSA to bring it in line with international and regional human rights standards.

The author is Campaigner for Sudan and South Sudan at Amnesty International’s Regional Office for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes