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Sudanese woman sent to jail for wearing pants

Journalist Lubna Hussein, wearing the same pants in the courtroom, is convicted of public indecency and sentenced to a month in jail when she refuses to pay a $200 fine. She could have been lashed.

September 08, 2009|Alsanosi Ahmed and Edmund Sanders

KHARTOUM, SUDAN, AND NAIROBI, KENYA — A Sudanese woman was convicted Monday of public indecency for wearing pants at an outdoor cafe and jailed for one month when she refused to pay a fine.

The case has stirred international outrage and spawned protests in Sudan over the Islamic-dominated government's treatment of women.

Lubna Hussein, a journalist and former U.N. staffer based in Khartoum, the capital, could have received 40 lashes with a plastic whip under Sudan's criminal code, which is based largely on Islamic Sharia law.

Instead, a judge ordered Hussein -- who stood before the court in the same pair of pants that she wore when arrested -- to pay a $200 fine. Hussein said she would refuse to pay, and was taken to a women's prison to serve a one-month sentence.

"If I paid, it would mean I'd lost the battle," Hussein said after the verdict was announced. "I would rather serve my time in jail."

Hussein was arrested in early July with a dozen other women, most of whom have since paid a fine or were lashed.

Western nations lodged complaints about the case. Amnesty International, a human rights group, last week likened public floggings to "state-sponsored torture."

Hussein, believed to be in her 30s, said she hoped her case would put a spotlight on the repressive treatment of women in Sudan.

More than 100 women held a protest at the courthouse, some dressed in pants, shouting slogans such as "There is no justice in Sudan!" Police arrested more than three dozen protesters and released them after the verdict was announced.

Sudanese women face widespread discrimination in the workplace and there are few high-ranking female politicians. Even in southern Sudan, which is predominantly non-Muslim, women have faced arrest, discrimination and attack for behaving or dressing in ways that were perceived by local authorities as immodest.

As a United Nations employee, Hussein was entitled to immunity from prosecution, but she quit her job so that the case would not be dismissed. She sent e-mails to journalists and diplomats inviting them to attend her sentencing.

"I chose to resign from the U.N. so that I could face the Sudanese authorities and make them show to the world what they consider justice to be," Hussein wrote last week in an editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper. "I also pray that the next generation will see we had the courage to fight for their future before it was too late."

Government officials declined to comment. The sentencing was twice postponed, reportedly in hopes that Hussein would agree to a settlement and international attention would fade.

Hussein's attorney said his client would appeal the verdict to the nation's highest court.

Sudanese activists called on the government to reform and clarify the nation's indecency laws. A 2005 peace treaty that ended the country's 21-year north-south civil war called for legal reforms to strengthen human rights and reflect religious diversity, but the work has yet to be completed.

"There should be definitions and guidance," said Anwar Bashir of the Child and Women's Rights Institute in Khartoum. "The law is there to protect people, not take away their rights."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Ahmed is a special correspondent.

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