Other amendments include abolishing the death penalty for apostasy and no longer requiring women to have permission from male family members to travel outside the country with their children.

Sudan’s ruling body, the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), has ratified a set of sweeping changes to the country’s penal code that include banning the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and allowing non-Muslims to consume alcohol.

The reforms are part of a bid to implement its constitutional mandate and strengthen its democratic transition.

Anyone found guilty of performing FGM will be sentenced up to three years in prison.

Other amendments include abolishing the death penalty for apostasy and no longer requiring women to have permission from male family members to travel outside the country with their children.

Public flogging will also be banned.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok hailed the decision as “an important step in reforming the justice system.”

Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said the amendments to the 1991 Criminal Law, originally introduced by the disposed Omar al-Bashir government, are designed to safeguard citizens’ rights as promised in the country’s constitutional charter.

“We cancelled the Article 126 of the Sudanese Criminal Law and have ensured religious freedom and the equality in citizenship and rule of law,” he said.

“All these changes are aiming at achieving equality in front of the laws. We have dropped all the articles that had led to any kind of discrimination. We ensure our people that the legal reformation will continue until we drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan.”

Abdulbari added that a commission to study laws and recommend reforms will be set up shortly.

Article 152, which was used to regulate women’s dress code and behaviour, was also repealed.

“Criminal justice reforms were a crucial part of the popular protest movement’s demands to secularise the state and the announcements over the weekend will have been welcomed by civil society groups,” said Patricia Rodrigues, an analyst specialising in East Africa for the geopolitical advisory firm Control Risks.

“The announcement also follows other reforms introduced in December 2019 that amended Public Order Laws to allow women more civil liberties.”

She added that the developments will be viewed favourably by domestic and international human rights groups, and potentially improve the global perception of the transitional administration.

While the move to ban FGM has been welcomed by women’s rights groups, the practice remains deep-rooted in conservative quarters of Sudanese society and implementation is likely to pose a challenge.

In neighbouring Egypt, where FGM was banned in 2008 and elevated to a felony in 2016, nine of 10 Egyptian women were still reported to have undergone the procedure, with around 80 percent carried out by medical professionals.

Some activists questioned the timing, saying that the Covid-19 pandemic puts them at a disadvantage since awareness campaigns cannot be mobilised nor can law enforcement training be conducted.

“Currently there are fuel shortages and long daily power cuts as well as rising infections of Covid-19,” said Nahid Toubia, a leading Sudanese women’s health rights activist specialising in FGM. “Communication and people’s mobility are severely hampered. These are not the conditions where advocacy for legislating against FGM is a priority or even possible.”

Still, the move’s symbolic and consequential nature cannot be downplayed.

“Legal reviews and amendments will continue,” Hamdok pledged, “until we address all distortions in the legal systems in Sudan.”

Pushback

The current Hamdock-led transitional government took over from Omar al Bashir who came to power in 1989 in an alliance with conservative hardliners and used the prevailing 30 years to enforce strict Islamic laws under his autocratic rule.

The spate of amendments ratified by the TSC were strongly opposed by voices from the country’s religious establishment, including some from hardline groups that made up sections of the previous administration.

Abdel-Hay Youssef, the ultraconservative preacher, slammed the TSC chairman Abed-Fatah al Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti).

“The issuance of amendments to the criminal law confirms to every fair [person] what those concerned said long ago that this government came as a war against virtues, and an aggression against the nation’s religion and identity” said the cleric, who is believed to be in self-exile in Turkey.

Youssef called on the army to step in “to defend the law of God” adding that Burhan and Hemedti “betrayed God and his messenger”.

“Uprooting this obscene government is a mandatory duty & obligation of every capable person,” he added.

This was echoed by Mohamed Ali Al Juzooli, the head of state of the Law and Development Party (LDP), who urged the armed forces to overthrow a government that he deemed to be a “foreign project”.

Salafist preacher Mohamed Abdel-Kareem also called for demonstrations to protest the amendments.

Head of the Just Peace Forum (JPF) Tayeb Mustafa, said the government had come “to fight God and his Messenger” and described cabinet ministers as “anti-Islam secularists and communists.”

But this rhetorical pushback might not amount to anything substantive.

“Such groups have organised protests against the current administration earlier this year, but their networks of political and financial power are in the process of being dismantled,” said Rodrigues.

“This means that while they may organise further protests, they will largely be unable to prevent these changes from being implemented in the coming months.”

A fragile transition

The amendments come amid the backdrop of fresh protests demanding faster and more comprehensive reforms from transitional authorities.

Radical socio-political transformation was a crucial part of Sudan’s nonviolent revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Bashir military regime last April.

The popular protests’ slogan of “Freedom, peace, and justice” represented the yearning of many Sudanese civil society, which led to a negotiation process culminating in a transitional political structure tasked with turning those dreams into tangible rulings.

The civilian-led transitional government formed in September has faced a number of challenges inherited after decades of political oppression and economic mismanagement, as it shepherds the country for three years until democratic elections in 2022.

The Hamdock government has to also delicately balance the expectations of the civilian movement and economic liberalisation with the powerful interests of the military, who continue to retain significant influence in political and economic affairs.

Any attempt at transitioning from dictatorship to a democratic system is fraught with formidable challenges. While Sudan embarks on a path toward democratic and accountable government, economic fragility threatens to derail its transition.

Deteriorating economic conditions, the primary driver for the protests, has only exacerbated political and economic strain in the midst of a pandemic. Sudan is among the most affected African countries in terms of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths.

An unsustainable fuel subsidy policy is in desperate need of reform, and has contributed to the country’s growing fiscal deficit and debt, which stands at $60 billion.

Inflation topped 100 percent last month and its currency has plunged to 141 to the dollar on the black market compared to 55 at the official rate.

With an estimated 65 percent of its 44 million people living in poverty, the stakes for economic reform are high.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has implored that Sudan be allowed to access the international assistance necessary to confront the pandemic, citing worsening health and economic impacts as well as the potential of “unthinkable negative spillovers” on regional and global stability.

Sudan’s constitutional charter calls for a range of legal and institutional reforms, many that have yet to materialise. The fresh batch of legal changes will help mollify some of those concerns and act as a signal to international donors.

“The reforms will work to demonstrate to domestic and international audiences that Hamdok’s administration is serious about human rights issues,” said Rodrigues.

“These changes may improve Sudan’s relations with Western countries more generally and also boost the prospects for the removal of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US and thereby unlock much-needed emergency financial assistance for Sudan.”

However, the ultimate goal of removing Sudan from the US State Department list (which it has been on since 1993) remains a significant challenge, one that might have a lasting impact on the success or failure of the transitional government.

The denial of access to development assistance and concessional loans, along with the deterring global banks from dealing with Sudan, leaves it subject to assistance from countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have opportunistic political interests linked to their support.

The Friends of Sudan group, which enlists the USA, UK, France, Germany, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia, claims to support the democratic transition and economic reforms set out in Sudan’s constitution. Khartoum’s geostrategic position, spanning the Horn and North Africa, make it integral for many of those states’ foreign policy objectives in the region.

Last month, foreign donors guaranteed $1.8 billion to ease Sudan’s economic pain. The EU pledged $350 million, the US earmarked $356 million, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia donated $50 million and $10 million respectively.

However, it is still well below the $8 billion in aid Hamdok said was needed over two years to turnaround Sudan’s crisis-ridden economy and recover the oil revenues it lost when South Sudan seceded in 2011.

For now, it appears “the Sudanese economy will continue to be fragile albeit with humanitarian aid flows preventing an economic collapse,” Rodrigues declared.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies