Sudan: the government uses pornography to discredit civil society
My take on the TRACKS center trial
“They kept asking me if I have a boyfriend….the last time I was kissed…they threatened to take naked pictures of me or montage a porn film featuring me,”
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 in the hands of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and was telling me her testimony. As I took mental notes to write down later, I kept thinking of my best friend who was asked during an interrogation by the NISS if she is a lesbian …after they saw our pictures together…..pictures taken on a boat on my birthday.
In 2012 and 2013, as Sudan saw a wave of mass protests, a number of tweeps confirmed that pornography websites, which are normally blocked by the National Telecommunications Council (NTC) were unblocked. Pornography was a way the NTC, a governmental body, was controlling the masses. They were almost saying: stay home and get off, but don’t go out and protest!
Using pornographic language and threatening activists that their images will be pornographized has always been a strong tool to suppress women activists in the past years, but a new case is proving that this tool has reached a whole new level.
The TRACKS trial
The courthouse was full that day, the 4th of September 2016. It was the second session of a long-awaited trial, one that began six months after a training center in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, called the Center for Training and Human Development or TRACKS was raided by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). The center, one of Sudan’s few remaining civil society organizations that trains on human rights as well as offers various language and IT diplomas, was also raided a year earlier, in February 2015.
For most of 2015, the center’s director, administrative manager and a trainer who was conducting a workshop at the time of the raid were embroiled in a legal battle as they faced capital charges. By late February 2016, the State Crimes Prosecution Office had found no evidence to carry on the investigation, the director was called in to retrieve the confiscated equipment.
The honeymoon only lasted a few days, the second raid in March 2016 saw the 2015 case re-opened and another case filed against the director of the center, its 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 arrested at the time of the raid, released later that night and were summoned in for several weeks after that.
The six defendants (including a 22-year old Cameroonian student who is studying in Sudan), sat in the courthouse that Sunday waiting to be tried, but in fact, the entire Sudanese civil society was on trial in Sudan that day and pornography and what was perceived as pornography were used as a political tool against them. Again, 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 also accused another defendant, Midhat Afif Al-Deen of also having pornographic films on his laptop. For the lawyers, this film was irrelevant to the case which has articles such as waging war against the state and undermining the constitutional authority as you need a “militia” to wage war against the state and not a porno. For technical experts, the plaintiff did not show evidence that the films were downloaded before the arrest of the defendants and by the defendants themselves.
I personally understood this tactic in a completely different manner.
First of all, the plaintiff understands that this case will become a public opinion case and understands that the international community is interested as human rights defenders/civil society actors are the ones on trial, so they believe that setting the ground by damaging the defendants’s public image and presenting them as immoral as understood and seen by the conservative Sudanese society will cause confusion within the solidarity movement. This tactic is very dangerous as it will be used to instigate public opinion against the defendants and initiate a smear campaign that changes the entire discourse of the trial causing the lawyers to become distracted from the actual charges. The lawyers and the solidarity movement will waste precious time defending the defendants regarding this issue instead of actually campaigning against the bogus charges they face regardless of the fact that many are not even convinced that the state should have the right to persecute you for any material found on your personal devices!
Second of all, as the NISS confiscated the personal laptops, phones and other equipment from the defendants, their personal life became under scrutiny from a state that values its ability to enter your life, house and the privacy of your body under the so-called public order articles. It is very normal for the state to criminalize and persecute the behavior, dress-code and personal attitudes of Sudanese men and women, however, the court case used personal files to persecute the entire civil society by showing personal pictures of Midhat Afif Al-Deen and his family and friends.
My picture was shown as part of the evidence….. I am standing with a close friend during her farewell party. Midhat was there and it is possible that he took the picture or it was later shared with him on Facebook… I don’t remember. If you have to know, we are not naked, but our headscarfs were around our shoulders. Our picture was shown as pornography because the state pornograhizes women’s bodies regardless of their dress-code and for this reason, the article on “dress-code” in the public order articles is loose and does not explain anything. You are naked in the eyes of the system regardless of how you dress. With women who are perceived as activists or active in the civil society, this is done on another level. Our pictures were shown to reiterate their point, this is the civil society here! They watch pornography and their women are uncovered and they are even smiling in the pictures!
What an utter debauchery!
The 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. But it was done for this exact reason, the NISS wanted to put the whole civil society on trial and in Sudan, the worst kind of trial is a moral one. We hear about political detainees and we see their pictures circulate on social media, but in a country where lawyers believe that thousands of women and men are persecuted by the public order police (community security police), we don’t see them and we don’t hear their stories because the society becomes your biggest prosecutor after the court if the charges against you are questioning your “morality”.
The trial was heavy on everyone. Some walked out before it finished, others walked out extremely uncomfortable.
I feel extremely uncomfortable that we are not doing enough to fight this new kind of persecution, the Sudanese civil society will be doomed. Organizations have been shut down and civil society actors have been put in jail, but this last debacle was an attempt to discredit the civil society and we can not let this happen.
Because if this works, the next time a civil society organization will be tried , it will not be for national security crimes, but it will be for charges such as prostitution and defamation. The morals of the committed people behind TRACKS center are being investigated in a court house in Sudan, but they are in this situation because of their morals…their solid values and beliefs in working for a just society where human rights become a norm is the only matter that needs to be highlighted.