KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudanese police fired tear gas and beat women protesting at the trial Tuesday of a female journalist who faces a flogging for wearing trousers in public.
Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein could receive 40 lashes if found guilty of violating the country's indecency law which follows a strict interpretation of Islam. The 43-year-old says the law is un-Islamic and "oppressive," and she's trying to use her trial to rally support to change it.
"I am not afraid of flogging. ... It's about changing the law," Hussein said, speaking to The Associated Press after a hearing Tuesday.
Hussein said she would take the issue all the way to Sudan's constitutional court if necessary, but that if the court rules against her and orders the flogging, she's ready "to receive (even) 40,000 lashes" if that what it takes to abolish the law.
Hussein was among 13 women arrested July 3 in a raid by the public order police on a popular cafe in Khartoum. Ten of the women were fined and flogged two days later. But Hussein and two others decided to go to trial.
In an attempt to rally support, Hussein printed invitations to diplomats, international media, and activists to attend her trial which opened last week. She also resigned from her job in the U.N.'s public information office in Khartoum, declining the immunity that went along with the job to challenge the law.
Around 100 supporters, including many women in trousers as well as others in traditional dress, protested outside the court Tuesday.
Witnesses said police wielding batons beat up one of Hussein's lawyers, Manal Awad Khogali, while keeping media and cameras at bay. No injuries were immediately reported.
"We are here to protest against this law that oppresses women and debases them," said one of the protesters, Amal Habani, a female columnist for the daily Ajraas Al Hurria, or Bells of Freedom in Arabic.
While the police broke up the demonstration outside the Khartoum Criminal Court, the judge adjourned Hussein's trial for a month to clarify whether her resignation has been accepted by the United Nations.
The 1991 indecency law was adopted by Sudan's Islamic regime which came to power after a coup led by President Omar al-Bashir in 1989. It follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law that imposes physical punishment on "those who commit an indecent act that violates public morale; or who dress indecently."
Trousers are considered indecent under the law. Activists and lawyers say it is implemented arbitrarily, and leaves the definition of "indecent acts" up to the implementing police officer.
Hussein said the law is unconstituational, and is not supported by Islamic text. Flogging is a common punishment for drinking and making alcohol, and whatever else the law enforcer deems indecent. Recently, a famous Sudanese singer, who took to the stage under the influence of alcohol, was flogged.
"Flogging is an insult to human dignity," Hussein said. "If the (rulers) claim this is based on Islamic Shariah (law), can anyone show me a verse in the Quran or in the prophet's teachings that speak of flogging women because of their dress code?"
Rabie Abdel Attie, a government spokesman, called the uproar over the case politically motivated and said only the constitutional court can decide to repeal the law.
"There is no need for all that noise. There are clearly political motivations behind this thrust," he said.
The public order police force patrols the streets of Khartoum, enforcing an alcohol ban and often scolding young men and women mingling in public.
Hussein said many women endure the flogging in silence, because they fear the stigma associated with being tried under the indecency law.
Hussein wore the same clothes Tuesday that she wore when arrested, including the dark-colored pants that authorities found offensive. She said she is required to wear the outfit to court so officials can see the clothing when making their decision. But Hussein said she's also been wearing the outfit every day, even when not in court, to highlight her case.
Her trial opened last Wednesday but immediately adjourned to give her the opportunity to resign from her U.N. job.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned" about Hussein's case and that flogging is a violation of international human rights standards.
The U.N. Staff Union urged authorities last week not to flog Hussein, calling the punishment cruel, inhuman and degrading.
El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.