CAIRO, Egypt – A woman journalist convicted of public indecency for wearing trousers outdoors was freed Tuesday, despite her own desire to serve a month in prison as protest against Sudan’s draconian morality laws.
The judge who convicted Lubna Hussein had imposed a $200 fine as her sentence, avoiding the maximum sentence of 40 lashes in an apparent attempt to put an end to a case that had raised international criticism of Sudan.
But Hussein refused to pay the fine, which would have meant a month’s imprisonment. She told The Associated Press that she was freed Tuesday after the fine was paid without her knowledge by the Journalist Union, which is headed by a member of the ruling party.
“I had no choice. All my friends knew I didn’t want to pay the fine,” Hussein said, speaking by phone from Khartoum. “I had chosen prison, and not to pay the fine in solidarity with hundreds of other women jailed” under this law.
Hussein said she suspects that the authorities don’t want her to spend any time in the prison in Omdurman, on the outskirts of Khartoum, where she said at least 800 women are serving time, many of them convicted under the indecency law.
“I wanted to make reports from inside the prison. Maybe they were unnerved by my presence in prison,” she said.
Fayez Selik, the editor in chief of the pro-south newspaper Ajras al-Hurriya, or Freedom Bells, said the government freed Hussein to end their “predicament.”
Mohieddin Titawi, the head of the Journalist Union, said he paid the fine out of duty toward a member of the union.
“I didn’t get permission from the government or from Lubna,” he said from Khartoum. “I know my duty very well and I intervened to get a journalist out of prison.”
Ever since her arrest in July, the 43-year-old Hussein has used her case to draw attention to Sudan’s indecency law, which allows flogging as a punishment for any acts or clothing that is seen as offending morals. Human rights campaigners say the law is vague, that its enforcement is arbitrary and that southern Sudanese in the capital – who are mostly Christians – are often targeted.
Sudan’s government implements a conservative version of Islamic law in the north, and “public order” police enforce the laws, banning alcohol, breaking up parties and scolding men and women who mingle in public. In mostly Muslim northern Sudan, many women wear traditional flowing robes that also cover their hair, but it is also not uncommon for women to wear trousers, even though conservatives consider it immodest.
Under the 2005 peace deal that ended a more than 20-year civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, laws – including the indecency law – are supposed to be reviewed to respect human rights and freedom of expression.
Hussein was arrested in July with 12 other women in a public cafe in Khartoum and were charged with violating the indecency law for wearing trousers in public. Ten of them were flogged shortly afterward after they accepted summary trials – as many women do to avoid the social stigma of a public trial on morality charges.
Hussein, however, decided to take the case to court to show the injustice of the law and its effect on women. Her case drew heavy condemnations from international human rights groups.
A spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva denounced the Sudanese treatment of women for wearing trousers. Rupert Colville said the $200 fine imposed on Hussein violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“This is not my case alone. This is a case of all the Sudanese women and the society,” Hussein said Tuesday when asked if she would appeal the court decision. She said she would consult with supporters before deciding if it is worth filing an appeal.
Hussein said in her one day in prison she met with many women jailed under the indecency law, including ones imprisoned for brewing alcohol – common among southern Sudanese. She said she met a university student from south Sudan who received 20 lashes for wearing trousers and is now serving a three-month jail sentence.
“Outside the prison walls, we (women) have no choice. Imagine how it is inside the prison,” she said.