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A Standoff Over Corpses In Sudan

The Sudanese deposed a dictator, but some fear true stability can never come until the truth is revealed about who killed more than a hundred protesters.

Sudanese protesters in Khartoum in 2019. Bryan Denton for The New York Times

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Two years after more than 100 young Sudanese were killed in a revolution that toppled a dictator, their bodies lie in limbo in a corner of the capital.

A deathly stench wafts from the morgue where the bodies are being kept; power outages are frequent and the summer heat intense. Outside, friends and relatives are keeping vigil, angered that the authorities have failed to carry out autopsies.

The government, they believe, is trying to suppress evidence that could provide the accountability they crave for the deaths of their loved ones.

“They’re intentionally delaying the results,” said Muez Mohammed, whose brother Saeed was shot dead by Sudanese security forces on June 3, 2019. “Everyone knows who killed the people.”

The macabre scene is a mark of the unfinished business and unrealized hopes from Sudan’s revolution. The country’s transition to democracy has been fragile, with civilian and military leaders still jousting for power. Little makes that clearer than the tensions over the bodies in the morgue.

In June 2019, at the height of the revolution, soldiers opened fire on hundreds of people staging a sit-in in the capital, Khartoum, a brutal display intended to show that while civilian protesters may have ousted Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar al-Bashir, two months earlier, it was the military that would decide the country’s future. Now, families of the victims and pro-democracy groups are warily preparing for mass protests on June 30 to mark their frustration. They say they’re still waiting for members of the police, the Sudanese Armed Forces or the Rapid Support Forces — militias linked to atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan dating back to the beginning of the century — to be held accountable for the violent crackdown.

Muez Mohammed, whose brother was killed by security forces, outside the morgue. Simon Marks

In interviews, forensic experts, state-appointed investigators and Sudan’s former attorney general, who resigned last month, said the inquiry into the killing was being stymied by the security forces and by attempts to cover up the evidence.

Officials involved with the inquiry — a justice ministry official, the former attorney general and a senior investigator — said investigators had recently uncovered a mass grave outside Khartoum, in Omdurman, containing the bodies of several hundred people they suspect were killed when the soldiers opened fire in Khartoum on June 3, 2019. If that is confirmed, the death toll from that day will turn out to be far higher than known.

Forensic experts sent by United States Agency for International Development are to arrive in Sudan next month, investigators here said, to make a preliminary assessment of the site. An agency spokesperson said the United States was supporting transitional justice efforts in Sudan, including “providing specialized expertise, where requested, in line with international standards.”

In May, Sudan’s attorney general, Taj-Elsir el-Hebir, resigned, saying it appeared that factions within the security forces were withholding evidence from his office, which is investigating the killings.

“We have reasons to believe that this relates to the sit-in,” Mr. el-Hebir said. “But we feel like there is a conflict of interest.”

Mr. El-Hebir said investigators had amassed evidence, conducting interviews with people who live close to the grave site to ascertain when the bodies arrived, how they were transported and what vehicles were used. “We have very important witnesses who testified,” he said.

Delivering justice in the case is seen as a critical test for the transitional government, which was formed through a painfully struck alliance between the army’s Transitional Military Council led by Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the opposition coalition, Forces of Freedom and Change, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the military council, waving to supporters at a rally in 2019. Hussein Malla/Associated Press

A declaration between the two camps signed in 2019 called for national elections in early 2024. But the sheer number, power and wealth of officials on the military side of the accord have left many Sudanese feeling skeptical.

Two senior Western diplomats and one from a major African state said most major powers — from Russia to China and the United States — had noted an increasingly strained relationship between General al-Burhan and his deputy, Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who is in charge of the Rapid Support Forces.

Earlier this month, General Hamdan, who is commonly known as Hemeti, reportedly refused to merge his troops with the Sudanese defense forces, which General al-Burhan leads, despite that being a stated aim of the transition.

“Talking about integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the army could break up the country,” he said at a memorial service for a soldier in Khartoum.

Nasr Eldin, a member of a government-appointed investigative committee, said his team had found two victims of the June 3 massacre roughly 150 kilometers north of Khartoum after speaking to villagers who reported seeing bodies floating in the Nile. He said investigators had taken DNA samples from the two bodies and matched them with the victims’ families.

“This is very solid evidence,” Mr. Eldin said.

Despite some progress, forensic experts involved in the investigation said their work had been hindered by the very committee charged with investigating the shooting. Two state forensic experts working inside the Ministry of Health showed The New York Times a letter from the committee ordering them not to speak to the media. They said the committee had also ordered them not to conduct autopsies on the bodies in the morgue.

Mr. Eldin said the committee had ordered a halt to the autopsies because forensic experts were compromised and had buried some of the bodies “without using correct procedures.”

Pictures of Mohammed Hashim, 26, who was killed in the protests, at his family’s home. Simon Marks

Those who fought to topple General al-Bashir say finding the truth behind who was responsible for ordering the deadly breakup of the June 3 sit-in will go a long way toward easing widespread public discontent over the pace of the transition, as well as such harsh economic measures as getting rid of subsidies for fuel and wheat. Sudan is also grappling with annual inflation above 360 percent.

“Once we live in a just state, all the other pieces will start falling into place,” said Samahir el-Mubarak, a member of the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that steered anti-Bashir protests.

A spokesman for the prime minister’s office did not reply to questions about the investigation, though in a statement earlier this month Prime Minister Hamdok said “the complicated relations between the several security organs” was “playing roles in delaying justice.”

General Hamdan’s office did not reply to questions.

For now, all the families of the dead can do is wait.

Amira Babiker, a lecturer in gender studies at the Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum, said the last time she saw her son was a day before the massacre. It was at his birthday party at the family home in Khartoum. In April, her son, Mohammed Hashim, 26, had come back from studying engineering at a university in London and joined the pro-democracy protests. In the early hours of June 3, he headed for a sit-in outside the military headquarters.

Mrs. Babiker checked in with him every hour to make sure he was OK. She had seen rumors on social media that security forces were massing.

“I called him until 05:15 — after that there was no response,” she said from her living room, which is now adorned with nearly a dozen photos and paintings of Mohammed.

Around midday, the family went to a hospital that had taken in patients wounded at the protest.

“He had one bullet under the right eye,” she said. “The police opened a case, but until now there’s nothing. No justice.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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