In Sudan, court should overturn verdicts against journalists

New York, July 16, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Sudanese authorities to overturn convictions and prison sentences against three journalists working for Rai al-Shaab, a now-shuttered newspaper owned by the opposition Popular Congress Party. The court, ruling on Thursday in Khartoum, also ordered the confiscation of the newspaper’s property, according to CPJ interviews and news reports.

The three journalists were arrested on May 16, along with another reporter, Ramadan Mahjub, who was acquitted on Thursday, according to news reports. Rai al-Shaab was shut the same day. The arrest and the closure of the newspaper stemmed from an May article alleging that Iran had built a weapons factory in Sudan to supply insurgents in Africa and the Middle East. The paper also published an opinion piece claiming that President Omar al-Bashir does not enjoy wide support among the Sudanese people.

On Thursday, a criminal court in Khartoum sentenced Abu Zir al-Amin, the paper’s deputy editor, to five years in prison. Two reporters, Ashraf Abdelaziz and Tahir Abu Jawhara, were sentenced to two years in prison each, their lawyer, Abdelomneim Osman Idriss told CPJ. He said the defendants would appeal. The journalists were convicted of “undermining the constitutional system” and “publishing false information,” Idriss said. The three are being held in Kober Prison in Khartoum, which is notorious for its abusive treatment of detainees.

“We call on the appeals court to overturn this politicized verdict and to reopen the newspaper” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “It is outrageous that the Sudanese authorities penalize opposition journalists and close their newspaper. This practice needs to stop.”

Idriss questioned the court’s authority to close the newspaper, citing Sudanese law that empowers only the Sudanese Press Council to take such action. The trial itself raised questioned of fairness, CPJ research shows. Defense lawyers who initially represented the journalists withdrew from the case on June 16 to protest the judges’ refusal to accept some of their witnesses.

The Popular Congress Party is led by Hassan al-Turabi, one of the top critics of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Al-Turabi was arrested on May 15, hours before the security agents raided Rai al-Shaab. He was released without charge on July 1, according to news reports.