UN independent experts have urged Sudan to end flogging punishments for women accused of so called moral crimes, stressing that the practice amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that goes against international law.
Premarital sex, adultery, failure to prove rape, dressing ‘indecently' or other behaviour deemed immoral, are all grounds for flogging in Sudan, as well as various other parts of the world”, the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, said.
Last Monday, Amira Osman Hamed, a 35-year-old Sudanese civil engineer and women's rights activist, was charged with dressing indecently for refusing to cover her hair with a headscarf. If found guilty, she could be sentenced to up to 40 lashes.
Hamed remains in legal limbo following Monday's hearing as the prosecution weighs up whether additional hearings will take place or if the case will be dismissed.
Her case has drawn international condemnation from civil rights groups after attracting headlines around the world.
Hamid is charged under Sudan's public order law (POL) governing morality, which took effect after the 1989 Islamist-backed coup by president Omer Hassan al-Bashir. The law allows for flogging as a punishment for any acts viewed as offending morals.
She has remained defiant and has refused to cover her hair, saying she is prepared to face a flogging to defend her rights.
Her case is reminiscent to that of journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, who was arrested in 2009 for wearing trousers in public.
In a bid to shine the spotlight on Sudan's POL, Hussein resigned from her post at the then United Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in order to waive her immunity so the case could go to trial.
Hussein escaped a flogging sentence after her case sparked a global outcry, but she was subsequently jailed after refusing to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds (about $US200). The Sudanese Journalists' Union later paid the fine on her behalf, but other women rounded up with her in a restaurant were flogged.
The POL has been denounced by politicians and activists who say that it violates citizens' fundamental rights.
Renowned Sudanese journalist and columnist, Faisal Mohamed Saleh, who is a recent winner of the Peter Mackler award for courageous and ethical journalism, described the POL as “the worst law on earth”.
According to the UN experts, women disproportionally face the punishment as a result of rampant gender discrimination.
“Given continued discrimination and inequalities faced by women, including inferior roles attributed to them by patriarchal and traditional attitudes, and power imbalances in their relations with men, maintaining flogging as a form of punishment, even when it applies to both women and men, means in practice that women disproportionally face this cruel punishment, in violation of their human rights to dignity, privacy and equality,” said Frances Raday, the chairperson of the working group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.
In a joint statement, both experts called for Hamed's immediate release, urging the Sudanese government to review its legislation related to flogging.
A video posted on YouTube and circulated by media outlets recently shows a Sudanese woman being flogged by a police officer after she was found riding in a car with a man she was not related to.
The footage, believed to have been filmed in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, shows an unidentified woman cowering on the floor and crying out in pain, as she is lashed and taunted in front of a watching crowd.
The UN experts said that under international human rights law, corporal punishment can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment - even torture, and states therefore cannot invoke provisions of domestic law to justify violations of their human rights obligations under international law.
They said the punishment was often used as a way of curtailing women's choices and freedoms.
“Corporal punishment of women and girls is usually linked to the control and limitation of their freedom of movement, freedom of association, as well as their personal and sexual choices. Punishment usually has a collective dimension, and is public in character, as the visibility of the issue also serves a social objective, namely, influencing the conduct of other women”, the experts said in the statement.
“We call on states to abolish all forms of judicial and administrative corporal punishment, and to act with due diligence to prevent, respond to, protect against, and provide redress for all forms of gender-based violence”, it adds.