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SUDAN: The role of Russia and Wagner in the Sudanese conflict and the EU

The role of Russia and Wagner in the Sudanese conflict and the EU

Speech at the Conference “Fostering Peace and Security in Sudan” hosted by MEP Fulvio Martusciello at the European Parliament, 18 July 2023


By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers


On 15 April 2023, an armed conflict broke out between rival factions of the military government in Sudan concentrated around the capital city, Khartoum, and the Darfur region.

As of 20 June, between 3,000 and 5,000 people have been killed

As of July 2023, 2.2 million were internally displaced and 645,000 others had fled the country as refugees.

The conflict opposes the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and Sudan’s de facto leader and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

In my presentation, I will try to answer three questions:

Is Wagner involved in the fighting in Sudan?

When did the Wagner Group appear in Sudan?

What is the role of the EU in the Sudanese crsis?

Is Wagner involved in the fighting in Sudan?

There is a lot of opacity about the role of Wagner in the fighting in Sudan and about its relations with the two leaders of the conflicting parties.

According to Ashok Swain, the head of the Peace and Conflict Research Department at Uppsala University in Sweden, the Wagner Group has a considerable interest in who wins the ongoing battle for power in the country and it is “very likely engaged in the current fight to keep its presence in Sudan and protect its huge business interests”.

And according to the same source, “the US has recently pressured Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council to remove the mercenary group from the country.” At the beginning of the conflict, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also voiced concern about the prospect of Wagner’s involvement in Sudan, saying the group “simply brings more death and destruction” with it.

At the end of May, the United States accused the Wagner Group of providing surface-to-air missiles to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

In an official statement, the US Treasury said “Those missiles have contributed to a prolonged armed conflict that only results in further chaos in the region.”

Two days before the conflict in Sudan satellite imagery showed an unusual uptick in activity on Wagner bases in a region on the other side of the border with Libya, which is held by a Wagner-backed general Khalifa Hiftar, leader of the eastern Libyan National Army. Combined with claims by Sudanese and regional diplomatic sources, this uptick in activity suggests that both Russia and the Libyan general may have been preparing to reinforce the fighting capacities of the Rapid Support Forces even before the eruption of violence in Sudan.

Before the simmering hostilities between the Sudanese militia and the army broke into open warfare in Khartoum and elsewhere, Wagner Group worked with both Sudanese leaders in conflict, to protect its own business interests all over the country.

In July 2022, a Wagner-linked Telegram channel distributed a video showing Wagner mercenaries conducting parachute-landing exercises for Sudanese forces. 

The same source linked to the Instagram profile of an anonymous Russian mercenary, calling himself a “freelancer” and sharing stories of his exploits in Sudan in posts from August and October 2021. 

Since 15 April, Wagner has offered military assistance to the Rapid Support Forces controlling some regions but it cannot be deduced that there is a potential alliance between both militias or that Wagner is taking sides for one party in conflict against the other.

In the mining areas exploited by Wagner in partnership with the Sudanese militia, it is in Wagner’s interest to make some arrangements for mutual assistance to secure their common business. In other areas controlled by the Sudanese army, it is not in the interest Wagner to stoke unrest. The protection of its business is its priority.

In conclusion, it can be said that Wagner’s shifting allegiances with the various competing political and military powers in Sudan are only determined by its business interests.

When did Wagner Group appear in Sudan?

The Wagner Group first surfaced in Sudan in 2017 at the invitation of then-President Omar al-Bashir following a meeting between the Sudanese dictator and Putin in Moscow.

Initially, in 2018, Wagner had about 100 men actively training Sudanese military forces but soon that figure grew to about 500. They were mainly stationed in the south-west near Um Dafuq, close to Sudan’s border with the Central African Republic (CAR).

The mission of  Wagner mercenaries inside Sudan was then to act in various roles, including training Sudanese soldiers or allegedly helping the security forces crack down on protests.

Wagner also trained the Rapid Support Forces based in the Darfur region. This led to a partnership between Prigozhin and Hemedti in gold mining operations in the region.

In early 2022, just after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the head of the Rapid Support Forces flew to Moscow to put in place a smuggling route for the gold to be sent from Sudan to the Middle East where it could be laundered and then to Russia to help finance the military operations in Ukraine.

On that trip to Russia, the plane Hemedti traveled in was also transporting gold bullion, according to the New York Times, citing two senior Western officials. During the talks in Moscow, Hemedti reportedly requested help from Russian officials to acquire military equipment.

In 2021, as much as 32.7 tons of Sudanese gold worth about $1.9 billion was unaccounted for, according to a report by US broadcaster CNN. The report also found evidence that shows that Russia has worked closely with Sudan’s military junta to ensure that billions of dollars in gold bypass the Sudanese treasury in exchange for the Kremlin’s political and military backing.

A Prigozhin-controlled company, Meroe Gold, was created in Sudan in summer 2017 at a time when Russia and Sudan were strengthening ties and signing cooperation agreements. The purpose of Meroe Gold was to run Prigozhin’s economic and financial operations, in particular the exploitation of Sudan’s gold resources, which is also said to be guarded by several Sudanese paramilitaries.

On 11 April 2019, the Sudanese pro-democracy movement toppled al-Bashir but Wagner maintained its relationship with the head of the Rapid Support Forces That relationship appeared to be instrumental in overthrowing the civilian-led government nearly two years later. Following the coup, army General Abdel Fattah Burhan took over as military leader Hemedti, making him his deputy.

Prigozhin tried to align himself with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. However, the relationship deteriorated after the June 2019 Khartoum massacre when Sudanese security services violently dispersed a sit-in, and pushed the Wagner Group back into a “guardianship” role protecting its mining interests.

What is the role of the EU in the Sudanese crisis?

The relations between Sudan and the European Union (EU) began in 1975. The EU is represented in Sudan by a fully accredited diplomatic mission. The EU Delegation is located in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and is headed by an EU Ambassador. 

Eight EU member states are officially accredited and residents in Sudan: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, Romania and Hungary.

The European Union has always been concerned about the political and humanitarian situation in Sudan.

Concerning the latest political and humanitarian developments and the actors involved, it is worth noting that on 4 October 2016, several MEPs filed a written parliamentary question addressed to the European Commission. It concerned the suspected indirect EU financing of the Rapid Support Forces deployed by the government at the borders with Libya to prevent irregular migration and combat human trafficking. The project “Better Migration Management (Khartoum Process) was indeed part of the EU-Sudan cooperation and the MEPs were reminding the EU Commission that the International Criminal Court and Amnesty International had documented crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by the Sudanese militia.

The answer of the EU Commission was: “The Sudanese Rapid Support Forces are not benefitting and will not benefit from direct or indirect support under the Better Migration Management (BMM) project, or under any other current or future EU-funded project.” 

More recently, on 25 February, before the conflict, the Council of the European Union imposed new sanctions on the Meroe gold mining company linked to the Wagner group saying that the activities of the Russian mercenary group endanger international peace and security and threaten the people in the countries where they operate and the European Union.

And a few days ago, the EEAS published a statement about the massacre of dozens of civilians in the Darfur saying:

“The European Union joins the UN High Commissioner for Human rights in condemning the killing in West Darfur of at least 87 people, allegedly by the Rapid Support Forces and their allied militia. We call on all parties to the conflict to allow searches for the dead and their collection and evacuation. 

The EU also recalls that there is an obligation on all to cooperate with investigations by the International Criminal Court into this atrocity and all crimes committed during the current hostilities within the jurisdiction of the Court.”

In this conflict, the EU Council repeats in all its statements “The EU condemns the refusal of both Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

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SUDAN: Journalists shot, beaten, and harassed covering the conflict in Sudan

Journalists shot, beaten, and harassed covering conflict between Sudan’s rival military groups

CPJ (30.05.2023) – On May 1, freelance Sudanese photographer Faiz Abuabkar was filming clashes in Khartoum when, he says, he was shot in the back by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group vying for power with the Sudanese military. The RSF then held him for three hours at a checkpoint, where he was threatened at knife point and beaten. 

“I was ready to die,” he told CPJ. “They accused me of being a spy for the Sudanese army, and when they searched my Facebook and found out that I am a freelance journalist who is not working for a specific outlet, they let me go.”  

Battles between RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), former allies who jointly seized power in a 2021 coup, have made headlines around the world. Hundreds of civilians have died, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of foreigners have been evacuated. But Sudanese journalists have been hampered in covering the events since fighting broke out April 15 due to tensions over the Sudanese army’s integration of the RSF. The two sides signed a shaky ceasefire in late May, but it has been repeatedly breached. 

According to reporters on the ground and statements by the local trade union, the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate, journalists have been beaten, detained, and interrogated. While the RSF appears to be responsible for most of the incidents, SAF forces also beat BBC correspondent Mohamed Othman last month, the syndicate said. (Othman and the BBC did not return requests for comment; CPJ’s emails requesting comment from the SAF and the RSF were not returned.) 

In general, the fighting has proved disruptive to newsgathering as many journalists, along with other civilians, have been trapped at home or work due to violence on the street. There have also been internet blackouts

On May 16, RSF soldiers detained Al-Jazeera journalists Ahmed Fadl and Rashid Gibril at a checkpoint in Khartoum. The journalists were held overnight. The next day, RSF soldiers raided Fadl’s house, where Gibril happened to be at the time, and threatened and beat the journalists and stole their cell phones, money, clothes, and Fadl’s car. On May 18, RSF forces also beat and robbed freelance journalist Eissa Dafaallah while he was filming the aftermath of fighting in the city of Nyala.  

Salem Mahmoud, a correspondent for Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya, was delivering a live report on April 29 when an RSF military vehicle parked nearby and interrupted his coverage. Video of the report shows RSF soldiers asking Mahmoud about his work before driving away. 

“Moving between Omdurman and Khartoum to cover the news is very difficult,” Mahmoud told CPJ in a phone interview. “Whenever we go anywhere, we come across a checkpoint where soldiers stop us, ask us who we work for, what we are reporting on. You never feel safe while working. They can arrest you at any moment. And when they do, they can confiscate your equipment before letting you go.” 

News organizations have also been targeted. On April 15, the RSF raided and seized control of the state television headquarters in Omdurman and stopped its broadcast. (The army denied that this happened at the time, according to Reuters.) Fifteen journalists and media workers were trapped inside the building with no food, Sudanese Journalists Syndicate chairman Abdel Moniem Abu Idris told CPJ. One group was released after two weeks and another after three following negotiations with RSF soldiers. As of late May, the broadcast has not resumed and RSF soldiers are still in control of two state television buildings, he said. 

Hala 96, a local independent radio station, shut down due to signal interruptions on April 15, according to the outlet’s social media officer Mohamed Hashem. He told CPJ that the station’s employees believe that RSF forces occupied the building weeks later when a widely circulated video showed armed individuals inside using the office equipment and threatening the military.  

According to the syndicate, closures like these have forced dozens of journalists out of their jobs.

Some journalists have also fled. Freelance journalist Ismail Kushkush was trapped in his apartment in downtown Khartoum for over a week with no electricity. He covered the conflict from inside his apartment, before fleeing to Egypt. 

“We knew that the building was surrounded by RSF soldiers, so we were concerned that they might storm the building and take over our apartments,” he told CPJ. “Personally, I was concerned about them finding out I am a reporter since I heard from one resident in the building who spoke to an RSF soldier that they wanted to make sure that there were no SAF soldiers or reporters in the building. So, when I was leaving the building, I hid my phone in my pants so they don’t find any of the footage I took from my balcony.”  

Abuabkar, the journalist who was shot by RSF forces, is now also in Egypt. 

“Once my wound got better, I went to Cairo temporarily. Even though there isn’t a lot of opportunities for us [journalists] over there, but it is just safer,” he said. “Honestly, if the current clashes continue in Sudan for a much longer time, I think I will have to go anywhere in Europe and try to start a new life from scratch. It is just too dangerous in Sudan right now.”

Photo credits: AFP

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SUDAN: Apostasy charges against Christians in Sudan dismissed

Apostasy charges against Christians in Sudan dismissed

Judge cites nullification of apostasy law two years ago.

Morning Star News (16.09.2022) – https://bit.ly/3xHYhWW – A court in Sudan on Sept. 8 dismissed apostasy charges against four Christians who were threatened with the death penalty unless they recanted, sources said.


Judge Ibrahim Hamza dismissed the apostasy charges against the Christians in Central Darfur state, stating that apostasy is no longer a crime in Sudan, their attorney said.


Initially arrested on June 24 in Zalingei, Central Darfur, the four converts from Islam had been subjected to degrading treatment while questioned, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). They were released that day but re-arrested on June 28.


“On July 3 the men were brought before the prosecutor, who told them they would face the death penalty if they did not renounce their Christian faith and agree not to pray, share their faith or participate in any activities that would identify them as Christians,” CSW stated. “The men refused and were charged with apostasy.”


Bader el Dean Haroon Abdel Jabaar, his brother Mohammad Haroon Abdel Jabaar, Tariq Adam Abdalla and Morthada Ismail were arrested from their church in Zalingei and held until their release on bail in early July, according to local sources.


They were arrested on apostasy charges under Article 126 of Sudan’s 1991 criminal code – which was nullified in 2020. In July 2020 the transitional government that took effect in September 2019 decriminalized apostasy, which had been punishable by death. Sudan’s 2020 Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act prohibits the labeling of any group as “infidels” (takfir), according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).


The church the four Christians had formed was authorized by Sudan’s Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowments during the transitional period, but it has closed due to threats and attacks by area Muslim extremists, according to CSW. Three other churches have closed in Zalingei this year due to an increase in threats and violence, the group reported.


Since the military coup of Oct. 25, 2021, officials have threatened church leaders living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), telling them they would be charged with apostasy if they continued to meet for prayer, CSW reported.


“When the leaders protested, citing the legal changes made under the transitional administration, they were informed that the coup had changed the legal situation,” CSW stated.


The 2020 Act also repealed other Islamic-based articles of the 1991 criminal code, including public flogging as a punishment and prohibitions against drinking alcohol. Although Sudan has taken some steps to reform laws that violate religious rights, most current statutes are still based on Islamic law, Christian leaders say.


Following two years of advances in religious freedom in Sudan after the end of the Islamist dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the specter of state-sponsored persecution returned with the military coup of Oct. 25, 2021.


After Bashir was ousted from 30 years of power in April 2019, the transitional civilian-military government had managed to undo some sharia (Islamic law) provisions. It outlawed the labeling of any religious group “infidels” and thus effectively rescinded apostasy laws that made leaving Islam punishable by death.


With the Oct. 25 coup, Christians in Sudan fear the return of the most repressive and harsh aspects of Islamic law. Abdalla Hamdok, who had led a transitional government as prime minister starting in September 2019, was detained under house arrest for nearly a month before he was released and reinstated in a tenuous power-sharing agreement in November 2021.


Hamdock had been faced with rooting out longstanding corruption and an Islamist “deep state” from Bashir’s regime – the same deep state that is suspected of rooting out the transitional government in the Oct. 25 coup.


Persecution of Christians by non-state actors continued before and after the coup. In Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Sudan remained at No. 13, where it ranked the previous year, as attacks by non-state actors continued and religious freedom reforms at the national level were not enacted locally.


Sudan had dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in six years when it first ranked No. 13 in the 2021 World Watch List. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report states that conditions have improved somewhat with the decriminalization of apostasy and a halt to demolition of churches, but that conservative Islam still dominates society; Christians face discrimination, including problems in obtaining licenses for constructing church buildings.


The U.S. State Department in 2019 removed Sudan from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) that engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” and upgraded it to a watch list. The State Department removed Sudan from the Special Watch List in December 2020. Sudan had previously been designated as a CPC from 1999 to 2018.


The Christian population of Sudan is estimated at 2 million, or 4.5 percent of the total population of more than 43 million.


Photo: Darfur Region, Sudan. (NordNordWest, Creative Commons)

Further reading about FORB in Sudan on HRWF website

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SUDAN: No fair trial for a woman facing now death by stoning for adultery

Woman faces death by stoning for adultery in the first Sudan stoning case in a decade


Campaigners say sentence amounts to torture amid fears that country’s new regime is rolling back women’s rights.


By Zeinab Mohammed Salih


The Guardian (13.07.2022) – https://bit.ly/3APlLLW – A woman in Sudan has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, the first known case in the country for almost a decade.


Maryam Alsyed Tiyrab, 20, was arrested by police in Sudan’s White Nile state last month.

Tiyrab says she is appealing against the decision. The majority of stoning sentences, which are predominantly against women, are overturned in the high court.


Campaigners worry the sentence is a sign that the military coup in October has emboldened lawmakers to roll back small gains for women’s rights made under the country’s transitional government.


The African Center for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), based in Uganda, said the sentence violated domestic and international law and called for Tiyrab’s “immediate and unconditional release”.


The centre said the woman was not given a fair trial and was not told that the information she gave during interrogation would be used against her. Tiyrab was also denied legal representation, it said.


“The application of the death penalty by stoning for the crime of adultery is a grave violation of international law, including the right to life and the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the centre said.


In 2020, Sudan’s transitional government, which followed the ousting of Omar al-Bashir, announced reforms to some of its hardline criminal laws and Sharia policies. The reforms did not include stoning, but in August the country ratified the UN convention against torture. The ACJPS said stoning was a form of state-sanctioned torture and was in breach of the country’s human rights obligations.


Jehanne Henry, a human rights lawyer, said the sentence “shows that harsh sharia laws [and] penalties are still being implemented in Sudan”.


“The death by stoning case is a reminder that the criminal law reforms during the transition [government] were not complete, and that such harsh, archaic punishments are still officially on the books.”


Flogging, which was outlawed in 2020, is still handed out as a punishment by the courts. The last known case of a woman sentenced to stoning for adultery was in South Kordofan state in 2013. The sentence was overturned.

Photo credits: Keystone/Zuma/Shutterstock

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SUDAN: Evangelical church properties threatened with demolition

Evangelical church properties threatened with demolition

CSW (25.05.2022) – https://bit.ly/3wVdGBX – A court in Sudan has approved the demolition of a 2000 square metre block of properties owned by the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) in Omdurman, Sudan’s second city.


The properties adjacent to the church comprise three homes that are rented to private tenants, three medical clinics, two laboratories, a pharmacy and a shop. The tenants, owners and the legitimate administrative committee of SPEC did not receive legal notification of the decision and only became aware of the plans when police officers arrived at the properties on 25 May.


Among the significant police presence which arrived at the premises on 25 May were four trucks and members of the armed police units who displayed their weapons. Some of the tenants were able to submit an appeal, and the court has stayed the demolition order until 7 June. Prior to the second order, three homes, including that of a 75-year-old man, and several businesses were destroyed.


A church leader who asked not to be named told CSW: “If this demolition is allowed it will be a disaster for the families and businesses who, without notice, could lose everything. For the church it is yet another blow in the struggle to control and administrate their land, and forms part of the exhausting discrimination that the Christian community is subjected to by the authorities. We had no notice of this decision, and have had to gather lawyers and attend the court to try and prevent this unlawful action in the knowledge that some may be arrested for standing up for their rights and we will once again be forced to defend ourselves through the criminal courts.”


The properties are in a prime location in Omdurman across from the main hospital, and are of significant financial value. A number of the homes are rented to members of church and clergy, who previously faced legal challenges to evict them during the al Bashir regime. It is suspected that individuals who sit on an illegitimate government-constituted committee are working together with government officials and investors to seize the land.


In Sudan, church committees recognised by the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments, which oversees religious affairs, are legally empowered to control a church’s affairs. During the al Bashir era, the government abused this provision in order to retain significant control over the internal processes of churches, and to further restrict the rights of Christians. Interference in church affairs was commonplace and was primarily undertaken by National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) officers, who pitted Christians against each other. The government would subsequently claim that disputes such as those concerning different committees were an internal church matter that did not involve the state.


During the transitional period, some important steps were taken to improve the protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). While slow to address the issues of church interference, the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments reached an agreement with the legitimate administrative committee of SPEC for administrative control over the church’s affairs. However, in November 2021 a judge dismissed this agreement . The decision came shortly after the military coup of 25 October 2021, and the steady rise in influence of the National Congress Party (NCP), the party of former president Omar al Bashir.


CSW’s CEO Scot Bower said: “We are alarmed by the attempt to demolish significant properties belonging to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) without notice. We urge the Sudanese authorities to review this decision, mindful of the fact that such a demolition will empower those with no legitimate standing to act on behalf of the church. We call on the international community to remind the military leadership of its de facto responsibility in Sudan to protect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and to uphold the principle of non-discrimination.”


Photo: The site of the attempted demolition in Omdurman – csw.org.uk

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