KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sarah Ahmed had no idea why she was being arrested, as police shoved her into a police truck.
The 18-year-old had come to the bustling capital, Khartoum, from her home in eastern Sudan to study for university, and was staying in a campus dormitory.
“I visited one of my friends at her workplace in one of the restaurants in the Riyad area in Khartoum,” she said. “During my visit, police raided the place, arresting me, together with other girls who worked for the restaurant, including my friend.”
They were taken to the Public Order Court, where Ahmed was introduced to a deeply flawed justice system. “When we arrived [at court], we were made to stand before the judge, who told me I was found smoking shisha,” she said. “I told him I had never smoked shisha in my life and there was no shisha on the table where I was seated.”
The judge ignored her defense and went on to charge her with the additional crime of “indecent dress” for wearing trousers. Wearing trousers is not a crime in itself in Sudan, but the concept of “indecent dress” is open to interpretation by judges. Journalist Lubna Hussein was famously fined for the offense in 2009.
Ahmed’s fate was more severe. She was sentenced to 40 lashes and a fine of 7,000 Sudanese pounds ($1,110) within five minutes of arriving in court.
Women Targeted for Punishment
A closer look at the workings of the Public Order Courts reveals that their near-instant charges largely target poor Sudanese women, and they have become a major source of funding for a court system that makes huge profits for judges, security personnel and those people loyal to the government.
Advocate Nabil Adeeb has written extensively on the Public Order Courts, defining them as “spontaneous courts” that provide no option for the defense – listening only to the prosecution and police. “Arrested and tried in less than 24 hours, these courts are competing with fast-food restaurants in terms of speed,” he said.
The cost to women is not only financial. If a woman is sentenced by the Public Order Courts, it can severely affect her social status, including her chances of marriage, Adeeb said. Fearing social stigma, women often accept trumped-up penalties, including lashes, without protest and without informing others of their plight.
This is what happened to Sarah Ahmed. The judge sentenced her to 40 lashes without considering the state of her health – no one was willing to hear her defense that she is diabetic and could not easily heal from such a punishment.
“When they started whipping me, I appealed to them to stop but they gave me a deaf ear and thoroughly beat me,” she said. She still has wounds that have not healed, even five months after treatment.
After being lashed and unable to pay her fine, Ahmed spent a month in jail. She did not tell her parents, fearing they would not sympathize with her situation. She was afraid they would prevent her continuing her studies if they heard she had been arrested.
In prison, Ahmed said she faced daily verbal abuse from prisoners and wardens alike. A friend eventually helped secure her release.
“The four ladies who were with me were working at the restaurant, so the restaurant owner paid their fines. But as for me, it was not possible so I had to remain in jail for a whole month till a good Samaritan came and paid,” she said.
Funding Government Through Excessive Fines
A recent survey by Sajeenat, a women’s research and advocacy organization, found that 70 percent of all public order cases in Sudan involved women. In 60 percent of them, punishment came in the form of heavy fines.
The Public Order Courts were set up in 1995 under the current National Congress Party, said Ahmed Subeir, an advocate and legal adviser to several local civil society organizations. Since then, the institutions have done less to uphold a moral code than they have to accrue revenue for the state treasury, he said.
While Sudan is historically a conservative society, a more strict form of Islamic law developed under the current government, which came to power in a coup in 1989.
The Public Order Courts in Sudan are an extension of the Criminal Act, but they operate independently of the main justice system, and are served by their own police force. The courts’ prescribed role is to “uphold moral order” within Sudanese society, by ensuring people adhere to Islamic dress codes, don’t drink alcohol or smoke shisha, and conform to other notions of morality.
When South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011, Khartoum lost 75 percent of its oil revenues. That was when the Sudanese government started to expand the number of Public Order Courts nationally to aggressively collect lost funds, Subeir said. Now there are 22 such courts in Khartoum and one in almost every other town across the country.
Based on an analysis of the Sajeenat survey and relevant court documents, it can be estimated that the Public Order Courts in Sudan collect a staggering 12 million Sudanese pounds per month – the equivalent of $1.8 million using official exchange rates.
The courts bring in roughly 135 million Sudanese pounds ($20.3 million) per year through fines – almost as much as the entire Khartoum state health budget of 145 million Sudanese pounds.
Profit Before Justice
“Court revenues have become more important than justice itself,” Subeir said. The more revenue judges procure, the more likely they are to receive promotions and allowances. “The system encourages the judges to convict the victims. It is rare for them to defend any case.”
There are no fiscal caps to the fines issued at the Public Order Courts – the rates vary according to the whim of the judges, he said. Smoking shisha is a punishable offense under Sudan’s Public Order Law, with a fine of 200 Sudanese pounds ($30), but some judges fine the accused as much as 7,000 Sudanese pounds ($1,050).
A Public Order Court judge who asked to remain anonymous refuted Subeir’s claims, and said the Public Order Courts played a positive role in controlling society and preserving good conduct. He said most cases were related to brewing and drinking wine and, more recently, drug use.
Most of the cases receive a sentence of no less than six months’ imprisonment, he said, but often judges would reduce these prison terms by issuing fines set according to the economic situation of the accused.
Nevertheless, huge discrepancies exist in terms of the financial resources available for Public Order Courts compared to regular ones, said a cashier at the courts, who also wished to remain anonymous. “I have never seen any suspect acquitted,” he said. “Getting convictions is crucial for both judges and police since their salaries, allowances and promotions come from the percentage from these courts.”
The cashier says police design their raids on where they think the most money can be made.
A Public Order police officer also confirmed that he is required by the courts to procure a high number of cases. The arrest campaigns are often conducted around weekends to ensure the suspects spend time in jail, the officer said. After being held in prison under extremely poor conditions, people are often more willing to pay any amount of money set by the judge to be freed.
In other cases where the suspects are not wealthy enough to pay the exorbitant fines, he said, they are incarcerated until relatives can foot the bill.
“I swear by Allah that the majority of suspects who are brought to these courts are poor people. What happens to them here is looting,” he said, adding that he felt frustrated and powerless to stop the process.
Frustration and powerlessness are emotions Ahmed now knows well. She said her opinion of her home country had changed since her month-long imprisonment.
“One thing that makes me very sad is the fact that I had not committed any crime and did not get the chance to defend myself,” she said.
“Since that time, I know what it means to live in a country that does not respect human rights or real laws.”