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Sudanese woman convicted for wearing pants freed

Against her wishes, union pays $200 fine

By Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press / September 9, 2009

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CAIRO - A woman journalist convicted of public indecency for wearing trousers outdoors was freed yesterday, despite her 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, an act that would have meant a month’s imprisonment. She said that she was freed yesterday 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 the law.

Hussein said she suspects that the authorities do not want her 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 its “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.’’

Since her arrest in July, Hussein, 43, has used her case to draw attention to Sudan’s indecency law, which allows flogging as a punishment for acts or clothing that is seen as offending morals. Human-rights campaigners say that 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, break up parties, and scold men and women who mingle in public. In mostly Muslim northern Sudan, many women wear traditional flowing robes that cover their hair, but it is not uncommon for women to wear trousers, 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 Khartoum cafe and they were charged with violating the indecency law for wearing trousers in public. Ten of them were flogged shortly after they accepted summary trials.