Skip to main content
SUDAN - 25 Nov 2021

HRW: Sudan's security forces use lethal force on protesters

Protestors clash with police in Khartoum, Sudan during a protest against the October military takeover of the transitional government, November 17, 2021 [Photo: AP/Marwan Ali]
Protestors clash with police in Khartoum, Sudan during a protest against the October military takeover of the transitional government, November 17, 2021 [Photo: AP/Marwan Ali]

Sudan's security forces have repeatedly used excessive force, including lethal force, against demonstrators in and around Khartoum, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday. 

HRW's statement said 16 people were shot dead on November 17, 2021, alone, including a woman and a child, the deadliest response to date. Protesters again took to the streets on November 21, despite the announcement that the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, had been released and had signed a deal with the military.

“The ruthless killing of 16 people on November 17, many shot in the head, shows clearly that Sudan’s security forces had no intention of exercising restraint, but are bent on silencing Sudanese voices,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sudan’s backers should not, in the name of political expediency, let these crimes go unanswered nor those responsible get away with them.”

The November 21 deal with Hamdok reinstates him as prime minister and allows him to form a technocratic government. The deal also calls for the release of “political detainees,” and national investigations into abuses. The deal was immediately rejected by protesters and the Freedom and Change Forces (FFC), the political alliance that once represented the civilian component in the transitional government, which was overthrown.

Since the October 25 military coup, groups have organized multiple large-scale demonstrations during which security forces have repeatedly used lethal force. While the prime minister was signing the deal with the military leadership, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to disperse protesters outside. Human Rights Watch spoke to 10 protesters and 3 doctors, and reviewed 7 video clips posted online. The Sudanese Archive, an independent rights organization that archives verifies, and investigates open-source documentation in Sudan, verified the videos.

According to doctors’ groups, 41 people have been killed since the protests began, including 5 children and a woman. The military has deployed joint forces including Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Rapid Support Forces (RSF), regular police, riot police, and Central Reserve Police (CRP), a militarized police unit, at protests in Khartoum and its outskirts.

HRW says according to forensic reports they have seen 6 of 12 people on whom autopsies were carried out after November 17 had been shot in the head, one in the neck, and five in the chest. Medical reports said that 107 were wounded, including 48 reportedly due to live ammunition.

On November 18 the police denied that their forces had used live ammunition. Human Rights Watch examined reports filed by families of the killed at police stations for eight protesters killed on November 17, citing live ammunition injuries as the cause of death. Lt. General al-Burhan, the military chief, denied in a televised interview on November 7 that the army was involved in previous killings. However, evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch, including witness accounts, forensic reports, and video footage, points to the use of live ammunition by security forces in SAF, RSF, CRP, and regular police uniforms, the statement said.

"Bahri, a town within Khartoum, had the highest toll, with at least 11 killed and over 77 injured on November 17. Three witnesses said they saw members of both regular and anti-riot police, as well CRP, directing their guns at the protesters, some kneeling or taking a shooting position before opening fire," it added.

A 41-year-old journalist at the same location reported seeing police forces use teargas at first, including firing canisters directly at protesters. Mid-afternoon, he saw police and CRP shooting live ammunition and saw three protesters killed: “they [police[ directed their guns at us. They did not shoot to scare off only – they wanted to kill us.”

Two witnesses near al-Sha’abia area in Bahri said the use of live ammunition intensified between 3 and 4 p.m. as some protesters remained on the streets. “There was more deployment of Central Reserve Police at that time,” one said. “I even saw one of them carrying a big machine gun and shooting at protesters. It felt like a war zone. I saw two protesters near me hit and bleeding a lot.”

Four said that police repeatedly fired teargas canisters at protesters without warning: “Sometimes they use teargas as a weapon. At some points, we were maybe 10 meters away from them, and I saw police officers directing their teargas guns at us. I saw two hit: one in the head and one in the shoulder.”

According to doctors’ groups, 13 were transferred to hospitals with wounds from direct hits from teargas canisters.

On October 30, the first large-scale protest, six witnesses described a heavy build-up of security forces, including CRP, Riot Police, SAF, and RSF in Omdurman. Three witnesses in al-Mawrada street said between noon and 1 p.m. security forces initially fired live ammunition in the air and then began to fire large amounts of teargas. Two witnesses said that riot police directed canisters directly at the protesters, HRW reports.

HRW further says security forces have also targeted health care facilities, harassed medical personnel, and disrupted medical care to wounded protesters at least twice.

On November 13, police prevented wounded protesters from receiving medical care harassed medical staff in East Nile hospital in Bahri and in Al-Arbaeen hospital in Omdurman.

Human Rights Watch said it also documented internet and telephone communications slowdowns and shutdowns since the protests began, hampering reporting and restricting people’s access to vital information at this critical time, especially outside of the capital. On November 17, local telecommunication services were also cut for most of that day. Internet services were restored on November 18, activists said.

Only four detainees have been released despite commitments in the November 21 deal to release more.

Dozens of protesters arrested in the last month by the security forces are still detained, with some transferred to a prison in Khartoum, reportedly waiting to appear before emergency tribunals.

While the use of teargas for crowd control when a protest has turned violent is permissible, forces should only use teargas when necessary to prevent further physical harm; where possible, they should issue warnings before firing. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life, Human Rights Watch said. Even if some protesters sought to repel the forces by throwing rocks at them, use of live ammunition would not be justified.

Human Rights Watch said it found that a handful of killings of protesters were investigated and prosecuted before the coup, but impunity for serious crimes has remained largely the norm. Obstacles such as lack of cooperation from security forces in lifting immunity for suspects or providing access to evidence continued to challenge existing efforts, said prosecutors, victims’ families, and lawyers.

Sudan should cooperate with the new expert on Sudan designated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Joint Human Rights Office in Sudan, to allow for credible investigations into events of the last month. Sudan’s international and regional partners should continue to call for an end to abuses against protesters and perceived dissent and press for the release of all persons detained in connection to their free and peaceful exercise of their rights.

“With so many Sudanese reeling from the ruthless clampdown of the last month, this is not the time for a return to business as usual,” Bader said. “Sudan’s partners, regional and further afield, should meaningfully support and help the Sudanese achieve their aspirations to build a fairer, rights-respecting country.”