More than a year after the overthrow of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir amid the promise of new leadership, Sudanese film director Hajooj Kuka was arrested during a theater workshop by the security forces that had served al-Bashir for years. He was tried and sentenced to prison on vague charges often used by the former government to enforce its conservative interpretation of religion.
The jarring episode, including alleged beatings by guards, rattled Kuka and other artists and activists, who say that the country has a long way to go before it can overcome the legacy of three decades of autocratic rule under al-Bashir.
Although a higher court overturned the ruling and released Kuka earlier this month, the case has raised concerns about personal freedoms in Sudan. The country has been ruled by a joint civilian-military government for 14 months, after a popular uprising led to the military’s ouster of al-Bashir in April 2019 and put the country on a fragile path to democracy.
“While these rules exist, we will never have a freedom of expression,” Kuka said.
Kuka, who is a member of the film academy that awards the Oscars, was one of a group of young artists taking part in a three-day theater workshop in August when neighbors complained about the noise, and the fact that women and men were mixing at the event. The organizers responded by lowering the volume, but the dispute escalated.
One of the neighbors physically assaulted Duaa Tarig, an artist and office manager for Civic Lab, the organization hosting the workshop. Other neighbors beat and threw stones at participants and staff. Dozens were trapped for a couple of hours before the police arrived.
When they did, they took 11 artists, including Kuka and Tarig, along with several neighbors, to a police station. The neighbors were quickly released, according to both artists.
The artists, however, were tried and sentenced in mid-September to two months in prison on charges of public disturbance and violating public safety measures amid the pandemic.
“The circumstances of the case including the charges combined with the police abuse and the sentences against the artists highlight the continuation of infringement on basic rights,” said Mohammed Osman, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Sudan's Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment, other than refer to a previously released statement that it is working to reform the country’s legal system in order to “establish a state of law.” A government spokesman did not return numerous phone calls.
After Kuka and his fellow artists were arrested, they said they were beaten and intimidated. When Tarig lost consciousness after allegedly being hit by a police officer, the other arrested artists started to chant slogans they used in last year’s anti-government protests.
That seemed to only anger security officers more, who then decided to press charges against them, the artists and their lawyer Othman al-Basry said.
More than a year after al-Bashir’s ouster, the laws that empower Sudan's security state have not changed, Kuka said.
Promises for reform have often run up against an alliance between Islamist officials and security forces that was forged to underpin al-Bashir’s rule and has outlasted his overthrow. According to the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, a rights group, the Sudanese judiciary system continues to be influenced by what the group described as the militant Islamist ideology of the former leadership.
The transitional government has taken some steps to eliminate several al-Bashir-era laws. In November, it overturned the Public Order Act, a Shariah-inspired law that criminalized a wide range of individual behavior including revealing clothing and drinking alcohol. It also passed a set of sweeping amendments to the country’s criminal code, including one that criminalized the widespread practice of female genital mutilation, and abolished the death penalty for people under 18.
But Tarig, the artist, described these changes as cosmetic. She said that al-Bashir’s Islamist base remains intact and wants to show that it still holds power within the security and judicial system.
Last month, while Kuka and his fellow artists were in jail, a group of artists held a protest outside the Justice Ministry in Khartoum. They met with Justice Minister Naser al-Din Abdel-Bari, who promised reforms.
The ruling against Kuka and the other artists has also grabbed the attention of film professionals worldwide, many of whom sent an open letter to the government calling for the artists’ release.
Kuka’s documentary film “Beats of the Antonov,” which weaves together the sounds of bombardment in the Nuba Mountains with resident’s use of music to deal with the ongoing war, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. His previous works have focused on the plight of displaced people in the country’s war-torn south. He was ushered in to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, earlier this year.
Kuka is originally from the Nuba Mountains, held by the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement-North led by Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu. Prior to the uprising that erupted late in 2018, he could not enter government-run areas. He arrived in Khartoum in January 2019 at the height of the uprising to take part in the protests, and was detained the following month and spent a couple of weeks in jail, he said.
Al-Hilu’s movement, the country’s largest single rebel group, did not join a peace agreement sealed earlier this month between the government and another rebel alliance, because of disputes mainly over the role for religion in lawmaking.
Kuka said he hopes Sudan's political changes will help end decades of war between the government and rebels in the south, and usher in a more inclusive society.
“The peace is not complete,” Kuka said. “It is a start for putting down arms.”
He has chosen to stay in the capital even after his arrest, because he believes things are changing. Now, he sees himself as a member of a vocal opposition that can act as a check on the institutions of power.
“I can work, I can live here," he said. “Although we got attacked and things are not perfect, it is definitely way, way, way better.”