Lessons from the Digital Campaign for Nuba Mountains Detainee Jalila Khamis
Between mid-March 2012 and January 2013, Jalila Khamis (a teacher and mother of five) was Sudan’s most prominent female political detainee from the Nuba Mountains. She was kidnapped, by Sudanese national security agents, from her house in the early hours of March 16, 2012 in her night gown; and imprisoned for nine months–without charges.
Jalila’s “crime” was that she was providing shelter in her home, and seeking aid for a large number of internally displaced persons (and family members) fleeing the newly erupted conflict in the Nuba Mountains. She was also speaking out, about the horrors and shelling sustained by the civilian population of the Nuba Mountains, to the Sudanese civil society and diplomatic community in Khartoum. This included a video testimony recorded by Nagla’a Sid Ahmed, Sudan’s most prolific video blogger at the time.
During the course of the following months, Jalila’s lawyers struggled to gain proper access to the details of her case. There was unconfirmed news that Jalila was facing possible charges the included: “undermining the constitution”, “spreading false information”, “inciting hatred” and “spying” for foreign entities. Charges that, if confirmed, could carry the death penalty. Jalila was told verbally of these charges by National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS), and that her video testimony on YouTube was used as the main evidence against her.
Jalila’s lawyers were resistant to demands by the Sudanese civil society and youth movements to launch more aggressive advocacy and/or media campaigning demanding that Jalila is given immediate charges and a fair and transparent trial, or be released. Her lawyers were under the impression that media exposure and campaigning would harm her case.
Regardless of this, the Sudanese women activists and youth movements refused to let Jalila’s case disappear into oblivion. They kept blogging about Jalila and spoke to the international media and international human rights organizations to ensure that her case gets coverage. They also kept in close contact with her family.
The turning point came in November 2012, when the women’s rights activists and the GIRIFNA movement coordinated a silent protest (in front of Omdurman women’s prison) with an online campaign. The social media campaign was synchronized on twitter and Facebook, with the Arabic and English hashtags: #Jalila8Months and #8شهور_يا_جليلة. A large number of people on both Facebook and twitter changed their profile pictures to Jalila’s picture and dedicated their status updates to demanding justice for her.
— Girifna Media (@girifna) November 6, 2012
Dear Jalila, today you complete 8 months in Omdurman Women’s Prison, we remembered you by standing 15 mins for your freedom #Jalila8months
— ريم (@ReemWrites) November 14, 2012
The social media campaign attracted considerable international media coverage. Global Voices covered the campaign, summarizing the twitter discussion under the #Jalila8Months hashtag. Open Democracy ran an article by an anonymous Sudanese activist, who detailed the hardships of Jalila’s detention including her four months in solitary confinement. Osman Naway, an outspoken Nuba Mountains activist, wrote an article about Jalila’s unjust detention, highlighting the plight of the Nuba people and the violations committed by the regime in Khartoum against populations of the periphery. And the Egyptian OnTV ran a full episode on the situation of human rights on Sudan starting with Jalila’s story and focusing on violence against women.
This rich documentation gave Jalila unprecedented popularity and support; in Sudan and internationally–she was no longer an anonymous, faceless detainee. She was a mother, teacher, wife and above all a champion of peace and justice for the people of the Nuba Mountains.
Shortly after the online campaign, Jalila was summoned and told that she was to stand trial on December 13, for the first time since her imprisonment. To mark nine months into her detention, a video was made, by an activist, with her family where they recounted their personal suffering because of her absence. Especially that Jalila was the main breadwinner for the family as well as a mother and a wife. This rich documentation gave Jalila unprecedented popularity and support; in Sudan and internationally–she was no longer an anonymous, faceless detainee. She was a mother, teacher, wife and above all a champion of peace and justice for the people of the Nuba Mountains.
With all the charges Jalila received verbally from NISS now confirmed, the stakes were high. The Sudanese regime banned any coverage of Jalila’s trial in the print media and delayed the trial several times. Nonetheless, the trial was closely watched and documented online by journalists, activists, video bloggers and normal citizens. This collective of supporters made sure that every single detail and failing of the Sudanese justice system was circulated on social media and by word of mouth. Jalila’s court sessions were heavily attended (including heavy attendance by NISS), to the extent that there was often no place to sit.
Live updates from the trial were posted to Facebook and twitter, prompting NISS to allow only journalists in the remaining court sessions. But even this step to limit attendance didn’t stop journalists, like Amal Habani, from updating their Facebook pages with details. Moreover, Amnesty International issued a statement requesting that, “fabricated charges” against Jalila be dropped; and the European Union sent a representative to attend the trial.
All this public pressure finally paid off when on January 20, 2013; the prosecutor formally closed Jalila’s case declaring lack of sufficient information. However, Jalila was charged with disseminating false information; but the 10 months she spent in prison were deemed sufficient punishment and she was released immediately amidst celebrations by the civil society, her family and neighbours in her honor.