A 19-year-old Sudanese girl named Noura Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging on Thursday. Her crime was murdering her husband after he tried to rape her.
According to Reuters, Hussein was found guilty of premeditated murder in April. On Thursday, she was officially sentenced to death by hanging. Her lawyers have until May 25 to appeal that decision, and advocates tell NPR that they plan to do so. According to The Washington Post, Hussein has been held in a women’s prison on Omdurman, Sudan, since May 2017.
Hussein’s lawyer Ahmed Sebair told The Associated Press that Hussein’s parents forced her into the marriage three years ago, and she initially fled and refused to consummate the marriage. Yasmeen Hassan, global executive director of Equality Now, an international legal advocacy organization working on Hussein’s case, tells NPR that Hussein ran away to her aunt’s house and stayed there for three years, and that in order to get Hussein to return home, her family lied to her and told her the marriage was canceled.
Once Hussein returned to her family’s home on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital of Khartoum, a wedding ceremony was already being prepared. Reuters reports that Hussein once again refused to consummate the marriage, but that six days after the ceremony, her husband raped her as three of his male relatives restrained her. The next day, her husband tried to rape her again, but in the resulting struggle, Hussein killed him with a knife.
“Everything that’s happened to the girl from the time she was 16 at least has been a travesty of justice,” Hassan says. “Twenty years ago, maybe people would have let this go. But right now with the awareness of women’s rights … and in this era of the #MeToo movement, this is just not going to be able to stand.”
As of Saturday morning, a petition on change.org protesting the use of the death penalty in Hussein’s case accumulated over 178,000 signatures. A group of about 40 advocates has organized an awareness campaign with the hashtag #JusticeForNoura. Moayad Baba, who is part of this group of organizers, tells NPR that in addition to a social media campaign, the group has organized a rally Saturday outside of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Baba says a sister rally in Sydney has also been planned.
Baba says the #JusticeForNoura campaign is in direct contact with Hussein’s legal team in Khartoum and with a social worker in Khartoum who initially alerted them to Hussein’s case. He says the group of advocates he is working with in Washington, D.C., is primarily Sudanese-American, and they’re in general young – mostly under 30. “There’s a generational divide, if you will, when it comes to the issue of Noura,” he tells NPR.
Randa Elzein is a 23-year-old medical school graduate who works with the Semma Center, a Khartoum-based organization focused on violence against women and children. She says the center has been working on Hussein’s case since last year, and she was present for Thursday’s public sentencing hearing. “As Sudanese women, we ought to stand in solidarity with each other against a system that has never been in our favor,” she told NPR in an email. “Moreover, because Noura’s family estranged and abandoned her, our presence there was very crucial to show her that she may have lost one family, but she has gained another.”
The goal of the hearing, Elzein says, was to ask the family of Hussein’s husband if they would be willing to take money in exchange for his death.
Hassan tells NPR this is a practice in Islamic law: “They could have actually forgiven her and pardoned her or they could have taken money — ‘blood money’ as they call it — as compensation for the killing, but the family has called for her execution.”
Elzein tells NPR that Hussein was not given a chance to speak during the sentencing, but that she appeared calm after the sentence was delivered. But her supporters in the courtroom yelled their disapproval, and, according to Elzein’s email, “the murdered husband’s family rejoiced and exclaimed ‘long live justice.’ ”
Hassan tells NPR that initially, Hussein had no legal representation because a judge-appointed lawyer refused to take on her case. Then, two lawyers joined her case on a pro bono basis. Now, for the appeals process, she says 12 to 15 lawyers have joined Hussein’s legal team. According to Hassan and Baba, this legal team met Saturday to finalize a legal strategy. Simultaneously, Equality Now is calling on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, along with Sudan’s Ministry of Justice, to grant Hussein clemency and drop the case.
Hassan says there are some particularities in Sudanese law that make this case unique. “If you look at the laws in Sudan, a girl is allowed to be married as soon as she’s reached puberty, which is getting younger and younger, so it can be 8 or 9 or 10 years old,” she says. “Under the law, her father is her legal guardian — she needs a male guardian to conclude her marriage. So these all go against her case.”
But, Hassan says, Sudan’s constitution does still require full and free consent to all marriages. “The key part of this case is [Hussein] very clearly did not consent – in words, in actions. So the laws are on both sides.”
Hassan believes international pressure will make a difference. “I’m very hopeful,” she says. “I don’t think President Bashir or that government wants to look so terrible in the international eyes.”
In 2009, Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, who charged him with war crimes and genocide in Darfur. And in 2015, Bashir escaped an arrest order from South Africa’s high court: He flew to South Africa for an African Union leaders’ summit and successfully returned home.