Legal Reform In Sudan Needed As Prosecutor Seeks To Reinstate Death Penalty For Teenager Noura Hussein

Noura Hussein, a Sudanese teenager whose death sentence was overturned after a campaign for justice, now faces calls from the state prosecutor to reinstate the death penalty. Noura Hussein was found guilty of murdering her husband Abdulrahman Mohamed Hammad who had raped her to consummate their arranged marriage.

Noura’s family betrothed her to Abdulrahman when she was 16 years old, but she refused and fled to live with her aunt outside of her town. Three years later she returned home, believing that her family had canceled the marriage. Instead, they forced her to marry Abdulrahman.

When Noura refused to consummate the marriage Abdulrahman raped her with the help of three of his male relatives. The next morning, when Abdulrahman tried to rape her again, Noura stabbed and killed him in self-defense. A medical examination conducted afterward indicated that Noura had sustained injuries during their fight, including a bite and scratches.

Sharia law in Sudan states that the murdered husband’s family is able to demand either a monetary compensation or the death penalty. According to their wishes, the Central Court of Omdurman sentenced Noura Hussein to death by hanging in April.

The court decision was met with outrage by Sudanese activists. Female journalist Tahani Abbas, as well as groups such as Sudan Change Now and No Oppression for Women, followed the case and made it internationally known. Going viral under the hashtag #JusticeForNoura, a petition attracted over 1.5 million signatures worldwide. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International also collected signatures which they delivered to the Sudanese Ministry of Justice, while UN groups issued a joint statement demanding clemency for Noura.

In response to domestic and international pressure, the Central Court of Omdurman reversed its decision in July. The new sentence issued Noura a five-year prison sentence and a dia (blood money) payment of around US$8,400 to the family.

International media hailed the repeal as a triumph of human rights activism, but lingering problems in the aftermath remain largely unreported. The family of Abdulrahman have not accepted the court ruling and threaten to kill a member of Noura’s family as restitution if the death penalty is not reinstated. In August, a state prosecutor reopened the case by issuing an appeal to reinstate the death sentence. Furthermore, no changes to Sudan’s legal system have been made since the ruling.

Women and rights groups claim that Noura’s case highlights the need for legal reform in Sudan in order to protect women from violence. Amnesty International stressed the need for the campaign to “lead to a legal review to ensure that Noura Hussein is the last person to go through this ordeal.” Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, member of Sudan Change Now, called Noura’s victory “a small thing in the scales of the [the abuses] that are actually happening.”

The UN Gender Inequality Index ranks Sudan #165 out of 188 countries. The index takes into account gender disparities in access to health, education, political participation, and employment. Marital rape and child marriage are not recognized as crimes according to Sudanese law. Girls are able to be married as soon they reach puberty, or from age 10 onward with a judge’s consent. After intense human rights campaigns, the 1991 Sudanese Criminal Act was amended in 2015 to clarify the definition of rape. Whilst marital rape is still not explicitly mentioned, the Sudanese Criminal Act was amended in 2015 after human rights campaigning to state that any sexual contact by way of force, intimidation, coercion or abuse of power constitutes rape.

Even Noura’s revised sentence is a harsh one for a woman who acted in self-defense and was the victim of forced marriage and rape. Noura faces five years in a Sudanese prison, where conditions are poor and brutal. The 2017 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Sudan noted that whilst female prisons were generally better than male ones, overall prison conditions were “harsh, overcrowded and life-threatening.” Prisoners generally receive basic access to food, water, and sanitation, but access to beds and proper ventilation and lighting was limited depending on the prison. Reports from the US State Department and Human Rights Watch also noted that beatings and torture were common, particularly among political prisoners.

Noura’s lawyer does not know when the court will decide on the appeal to reinstate the death sentence, but groups within and outside of Sudan must demand that the government revise its legal system. Eltayeb noted “public opinion has begun to shift and recognize that, at least for cases like Noura, it was a clear act of self-defense. This creates openings for more debate, but no laws or policies changed as a result of Noura’s case.” A campaigner (anonymous for security reasons) remains optimistic about their ability to bring about reform, saying “one of the lessons we learned from [Noura’s] campaign is the regime’s growing concern of their image in the West. We can use this leverage in the future.” Hopefully, if local activists and international organizations continue to coordinate, they will be able to exert enough pressure on the Sudanese government to effect real change.