Acclaimed Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka among five artists sentenced to prison in Khartoum

Their imprisonment has sparked criticism from rights groups and the international film community

DOHA, QATAR - MARCH 13:  Director Hajooj Kuka during the Project Feedback working breakfast session on day five of Qumra, the fourth edition of the industry event by the Doha Film Institute dedicated to the development of emerging filmmakers on March 13, 2018 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Doha Film Institute)
Powered by automated translation

Award-winning filmmaker Hajooj Kuka and four other artists were sentenced to prison for two months by a Sudanese court in Khartoum on Thursday, leading rights groups and the international film community to call for their release.

Kuka is known for his films Beats of the Antonov and Akasha, the latter of which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. This year, he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars.

He, along with artists Abdelrahman Mohamed, Ayman Khalafallah, Ahmed El Sadig and Dua Tareg, were charged with public disturbance and violating public safety measures. They have also been fined 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($90) each.

Their case goes back to August, when the artists held a rehearsal with the Civic Lab art collective at a cultural centre in Khartoum. Neighbours complained about the noise, which eventually escalated into a fight.

The artist’s lawyer Othman Al Basry has stated to the Associated Press (AP) that one of the neighbours physically attacked Tarig while others threw stones at the artists and staff. Police forces arrested a total of 11 artists at the scene.

Tariq also claimed that an officer at the police station slapped her when she protested his taking her photo with his personal mobile phone.

Kuka wrote a tweet about the incident on August 13, stating, “We got attacked during a theatre workshop… by Islamists instigators. The police stood by the attackers and arrested us,” adding “Is there any support for artists or do we need to get killed first?”

All four artists have been vocal supporters of last year’s pro-democracy revolution in Sudan, which led to the toppling of President Omar Al Bashir in April 2019. Kuka was arrested in February 2019 during the mass protests that swept the country for months.

Sudan is now under a military-civilian government, with elections to take place in late 2022.

On Friday, a video emerged online showing the artists in prison chanting slogans used during the uprising.

Their arrests have sparked criticism from activists, social media users and rights organisations that see their arrest as characteristic of the Al Bashir era.

“The judiciary system continues to be heavily influenced by the militant Islamist ideology of the ex-regime, which criminalised freedom of association and arts and undermined the existence of women in the public sphere,” said the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, or SIHA to AP.

Names from the film industry have also voiced their concerns. Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente, who head up the Toronto International Film Festival, have called for the artists’ release. Bailey wrote in a tweet on Friday: “Hajooj Kuka is an exceptional filmmaker… Now he’s been jailed in Sudan. We need to make some noise about this.”

In a statement on Monday, the Berlin Film Festival said that “joins the international protest against the arrest of Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka and four other artists. The group of artists has been randomly charged with causing a public nuisance.”

The International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) and the European Film Academy, among others, have also condemned the artists’ imprisonment.