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Sudan filmmaker Hajooj Kuka one of five artists jailed in Khartoum

Authorities accused of 'criminalising artists' after group rehearsing play sentenced to two months and fined for causing a public nuisance
Filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, one of the sentenced artists, won the People's Choice Award at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival (AFP)

Five Sudanese artists, including an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, have been jailed for two months and fined on charges of causing a public nuisance, in what some observers have described as a crackdown on art and activism. 

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Hajooj Kuka, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, was among a group of artists handed two-month sentences and fines of 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($90) on Thursday for "threatening peace" and "breaching public safety". 

Last month, Sudanese authorities raided a cultural centre in the Al-Zuhour neighbourhood of the capital Khartoum, where several artists were rehearsing a play, after receiving a noise complaint from local residents.

According to Kuka, they were physically attacked by "Islamist instigators", while the police watched on without intervening. 

Eleven people were subsequently arrested by authorities, of whom six are due to be sentenced next Sunday and are expected to be handed the same sentence as their colleagues. 

One of the detainees, Duaa Tariq, alleged that a police officer took a photo of her with his personal phone at the police station, and slapped her when she protested. 

She attempted to file a case against the officer in question, but the request was delayed and denied several times because police were “busy,” Tariq said on Facebook. 

While in custody, the detainees chanted revolutionary slogans, which angered police authorities and delayed their release, according to news site Ayin Network.

The decision has been met with outrage and concern by activists and social media users. 

“This case was handled in a biased and politicised environment that lacked justice and due diligence,” the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) said in a statement. 

“It enabled citizens with certain ideologies to attack artists and ally themselves with law enforcement to criminalise the artists, without facing accountability for the assaults they committed." 

The artists claimed that the residents who reported them were religious militants who have a history of harassing visitors to the cultural centre. 

Kuka was awarded the 2014 People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival for his documentary Beats of the Antonov. The film documents the lives of farmers, herders and rebels displaced to the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains regions, and their conflict with the Sudanese army. 

The 44-year-old filmmaker was a leading organiser during Sudan’s revolution, which overthrew longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. 

Kuka was arrested in February last year during mass protests, and said he had come close to being killed when he was “fake executed” by authorities. 

“They put a tear gas canister in front of my face and told me to close my eyes, they were going to kill me… then one of them clapped next to my ear,” Kuka told News24. 

“I wasn’t sure if they were going to do it or not. I had heard of fake executions, so all of this was running through my mind." 

Since the revolution, a number of reforms have been carried out by Sudan’s transitional government. However, the latest bout of arrests have caused many to question how much has really changed.