President Trump Should Work to Save Sudanese Woman

by Mohamed Abubakr

When I agreed to testify before Congress a year ago about Sudan, I understood that stating my opposition to the lifting of U.S. sanctions against my country could put at risk those closest to me. My decision to testify nonetheless hinged on the calculation that saying anything else would result in a U.S. policy that would imperil not only my family, but so many more vulnerable people in my country.

Sadly, in the year that has passed, I have seen this prediction come true. President Trump’s lifting of sanctions against al-Bashir and his regime in January 2017 has signaled to the Sudanese dictator that he can crack down with impunity against his most vulnerable citizens.  And today, the most vulnerable person in Sudan is 19-year-old Noura Hussein, who has been sentenced to death by hanging for killing her husband, who she was forced to marry, and who raped her.

Hussein’s parents married her off when she was just 16 years old. She ran away to escape the marriage, living with a relative until her father tricked her into coming back and forced her to complete the wedding. Hussein has been convicted of murdering her rapist husband and has been sentenced to death.  Yet with proper pressure on al-Bashir, non-execution of sentence, retrial, or even full pardon are all realistic possible outcomes. Indeed, similar pressure has yielded favorable outcomes before, most recently in release of pregnant Christian woman, Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, who was on a death row as well.  Through direct and meaningful engagement with the government of Sudan, The U.S. can save Noura’s life, stand with the people of Sudan and reassert a modicum of leverage and influence over a country that could present a national security challenge to the United States in the future.

In Sudan, marital rape is not recognized, although some advocates are making the argument that a 2015 law on rape may allow it to be recognized. However, President al-Bashir does have the power to pardon - a power that he won’t use in Hussein’s case unless he is incentivized to do so. Although rights activists and groups across Sudan are pressuring al-Bashir to pardon her, he will only be swayed by significant pressure from the last remaining country with any real leverage over Sudan – the United States.

Though Europe once held such leverage, it all but evaporated when the EU struck a deal with al-Bashir to have his mercenaries prevent additional migration through Sudan to Europe.  UN statements have never led to any real action either.

That leaves the United States as the only global power that can still sway al-Bashir. Despite the Trump administration’s mistaken decision to permanently lift sanctions against Sudan - following the Obama administration’s equally mistaken decision to temporarily do so in January 2017 - Washington can still wield significant influence.

The Sudanese government wants the country removed from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. While the Sudanese government has not changed any of the behavior that got them on this list and thus are not likely to be removed, it means that Sudan will be particularly careful about any issue that captures U.S. attention.

Secondly, in the wake of a significant upswell over the past months in domestic protests due to massive inflation and rampant ongoing corruption, al-Bashir’s grip on power is loosening. Indeed, in recent weeks it has been reported that al-Bashir’s regime’s own officials are pushing for his ouster. If the current administration threatens this regime with the reinstatement of the U.S. sanctions that were lifted last year, it is no overstatement to say that al-Bashir will blink and listen to U.S. demands, including for the exoneration of Hussein.

Finally, Congress has a role to play in pressuring al-Bashir as well. The Sudanese government already has weak support in Congress. Al-Bashir is fully aware that losing that already tenuous support could quickly lead to a renewed state of animosity between Sudan and the U.S. The same members of Congress who supported the ill-advised decision to lift the sanctions have the moral responsibility to urge al-Bashir to pardon Hussein.

The current administration may not be swayed to act by human rights-related arguments. But by pressing for her pardon /sentence non-execution, President Trump also has an opportunity to demonstrate U.S. power in a region where Washington’s influence is perceived to be dwindling.  

The cause of #JusticeForNoura enjoys unprecedented support from the people of Sudan, as well as the international community. With pressure from Washington, this woman can be saved from the death penalty. It won’t be complete justice for what she’s been through, nor a solution to the larger human rights abuses in Sudan, but it would be an important step in the right direction.

Mohamed Abubakr is a Sudanese human rights activist and President of the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project.