Christian Caryl

An Idealist on Death Row

Why the desperate fate of a little-known Sudanese human rights activists poses some fundamental questions about what it means to be human.


You’ve probably never heard of Jalila Khamis Koko. As for me, I’ve only read about her. But it’s quite clear from what I’ve read that she’s an extraordinary person.

Her life story has the same improbable trajectory as that of so many other human rights activists around the world. A 43-year-old elementary school teacher, wife, and mother isn’t necessarily the sort of person you’d expect to confront one of Africa’s most vicious governments. But that’s what she’s done. For more than a year now, the government of Sudan has been waging a war in the border state of South Kordofan, Jalila’s homeland. The fighting has included the same sorts of abuses already sadly familiar from the conflict in Darfur, including wholesale rape, the use of famine as a weapon of war, and the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians. It has created half a million refugees in South Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state.

Jalila responded by turning her home in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, into a refuge for those fleeing the fighting. By this spring around two dozen people were living there. But what really drew the attention of the Sudanese authorities seems to have been her outspoken criticism, in a now-notorious video published in June 2011, of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s brutal treatment of her fellow Nubans, the majority inhabitants of South Kordofan. (Like so many other of Sudan’s ethnic minorities, the Nubans, who are not Arabs, have persistently resisted Bashir’s efforts to make them conform with his own ethnic and religious definition of what "proper Sudanese" are supposed to be.) She also had the temerity to call for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict.

Note: That’s all she did: criticize. Her protest was entirely non-violent. She harmed no one.

On March 15, in the early hours of the morning, the Sudanese secret police — the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) — showed up at Jalila’s home and took her away. She’s been imprisoned ever since. Just last month, according to Amnesty International, a Sudanese court sentenced her to death on treason charges. She could be executed at any time.

Clearly President Bashir wants to make an example of her. From his viewpoint, it’s understandable why. This is a tricky time for the government in Khartoum. The Islamist regime’s countless wars have only brought misery to Sudan’s people. The economy is tanking, and discontent is rife. Earlier this year, Sudanese in the heartland of the country — not just the long-restive minorities on its periphery — took to the streets to rehearse their own version of the Arab Spring. Flash mobs, coordinated by mobile phones, popped up all over the place to chant anti-government slogans.

The Sudanese security forces cracked down, sending at least 2,000 protestors to jail. (Incidentally, the woman who took the video of Jalila and posted it on the Internet, another activist by the name of Nagla Sayed Ahmed, has apparently also been sentenced to death in absentia by a Khartoum court, though she has managed to flee the country.)

Bashir might be hoping that his recent deal on sharing oil revenues with South Sudan, which achieved its independence last year, will give him some economic breathing room. But even that won’t help him to put his country’s political problems to rest. He’s betting that the only solution there is force.

Jalila knew what she was getting into. You don’t take on a regime like Bashir’s without knowing that you’re going to be facing some harsh reprisals. Indeed, Bashir has shown in the past that he won’t even stop short of persecuting one of his state’s own founding fathers when he sees fit. (When Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist who provided the crucial ideological underpinnings for the Sudanese regime, ran afoul of Bashir a few years ago, he ended up doing a long stint in jail as well.)

And this brings me to a question that I’ve found myself pondering a lot lately. What is it that moves some remarkable individuals to stand up and be counted even when they know that this will bring all sorts of misfortune down on them and their families? Though such people are few and far between, they represent a phenomenon that has proven remarkably persistent over the ages.

It’s not immediately clear why this should be so. If humans are indeed motivated above all by a longing for security or economic well-being, then it would be impossible to explain activists like Jalila, who have everything to lose and very little to gain, in material terms, by directly and actively opposing a government that is thousands of times more powerful than she is.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of people rarely resort to open protest or outward political activism — especially when authoritarian governments demonstrate the will to use violence against them for doing so. Yet under the right set of circumstances even these cautious masses can be tipped into action by the dedicated efforts of an idealistic few.

In my career as a journalist I’ve encountered these people all over the world. In Russia there was the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who just couldn’t help but stand up to a malevolent cabal of gangsters, soldiers, and corrupt bureaucrats — and paid for it with her life, as many bystanders might have predicted. In Hong Kong there was the activist Han Dongfang, who was punished for his efforts to apprise Chinese workers of their rights with exile from his homeland.

It feels good to see Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi accepting awards on behalf of a people now cautiously emerging into the bright light of freedom after decades under crushingly oppressive military rule. But I wonder if the honors heaped upon her now can really compensate for her decades of sacrifice, including the loss of a normal family life.

And for every Nobel Laureate who manages to make a dent in the reign of injustice, there are still many other dissidents who labor in obscurity, their names unknown, in many cases, even to their compatriots. Their fates should serve as a reminder that most activists don’t get into the job to become famous. They do it because some mysterious inner force, some profound moral impetus, is urging them forward to do the right thing.

I’ve never seen anyone explore this impulse in a convincing way. But the story of Jalila Khamis Koko reminds us that it’s still around, and as strong as ever.

P.S. — To those readers who want to intercede on her behalf, you can find more information on her case, and how to take action, on Amnesty International’s site here.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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