The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She fatally stabbed her husband as he allegedly raped her. A Sudanese court sentenced her to death.

Crowds gathered at a courthouse in Omdurman, Sudan, for the sentencing hearing of Noura Hussein on May 10. (Courtesy of Badreldin Salah)

Noura Hussein had no desire to get married. She was about 16, an aspiring teacher who hadn’t even finished high school. But the Sudanese teenager’s family forced her to marry the man of their choosing, a cousin, against her will. Her family made a contract with the groom’s family, and the marriage was settled.

Hussein refused to accept it, running away to live with a relative in a neighboring city for nearly three years, according to Amnesty International and other activists involved in her case. In April of last year, her family persuaded her to return to their home in the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The wedding was off, her father promised.

It was a trap. Hussein’s family forced her to participate in a wedding ceremony and move in with her arranged husband. And when she refused to consummate the marriage, her husband sought the help of his brother and cousins. The men held her down as her husband raped her, according to activists in Sudan and her lawyer, who spoke to the Associated Press.

The following day he tried to rape her again, her lawyer told the AP. Hussein grabbed a knife and stabbed him to death. Her legal team called it a desperate act of defense. A court in Sudan called it murder.

Late last month, Hussein was found guilty of premeditated murder. On Thursday, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Her legal team has 15 days to appeal the sentence before she is executed, according to witnesses in the courtroom, who spoke to The Washington Post and documented the hearing on social media.

Hussein’s conviction and pending execution have prompted an international campaign calling for clemency for the young woman. Across social media, Sudanese activists and supporters in Europe, Australia and Washington have rallied around Hussein. Her case, they say, sheds light on a culture that subjects women to male violence, and a broken justice system that renders many women powerless.

In Sudan, a girl as young as 10 can be legally married with the permission of a judge and a guardian, Reuters reported.

“Noura Hussein is a victim and the sentence against her is an intolerable act of cruelty,” Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, wrote in a statement.

Hussein has been held in a women’s prison in Omdurman, Sudan’s second-largest city, since May 2017. After she told her family what happened, Hussein’s father turned her in to police, calling her a “shame” to the family, according to Afrika Youth Movement, an activist group working with Hussein’s lawyers.

Hussein’s story, and the hashtag #JusticeForNoura, have circulated on social media in Sudan in recent weeks, and supporters packed the courtroom on Thursday to witness the sentencing. But none of Hussein’s relatives attended the hearing, “because of the social stigma,” Badreldin Salah, a 25-year-old activist with Afrika Youth Movement who was in the court Thursday, told The Post.

Under sharia law in Sudan, a person found guilty of murder is either executed or forced to pay a fine. Forced child marriage and marital rape are not considered crimes in Sudan and cannot be used as evidence in a defense. The deceased individual’s family chooses the punishment, demanding either a pardon, monetary compensation or a death sentence, Salah told The Post. The whole family has to agree on the punishment, Salah said.

The judge asked the deceased man’s family which option they wanted, and the family chose execution. As the judge granted the sentence, the man’s family began “clapping with joy,” according to witnesses cited by Hussein’s campaign. Outside the courtroom, supporters of Hussein protested with anti-death penalty signs before being “harassed” by state security troops and told to leave, Salah said.

The Afrika Youth Movement wrote a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemning Hussein’s case as an “atrocity committed by the state of Sudan against a powerless individual, first violated as a female child and then executed as an adult female for the very abuse she in fact suffered.”

The group pleaded with international human rights leaders to interfere in the sentence. Groups such as Equality Now are writing to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to plead for clemency. A group of Sudanese and international activists have been visiting Hussein in prison, translating letters of support from across the globe and working with her lawyers to appeal the case. Thousands of people have signed petitions in support of Hussein. A team of Sudanese activists is organizing a protest at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Saturday.

Cases like Hussein’s don’t come to light often in Sudan, Salah said, because most young women who experience sexual abuse in marriage “don’t raise their voices or say anything because of the social pressure or the social stigma. They prefer to stay silent.” But Hussein’s case was different.

“Noura stood up,” Salah said. “Noura rebelled on the family and on the social system.”

Hussein’s case is significant, Afrika Youth Movement wrote, “Not only because she is one of the many women in a similar situation — subjected to patriarchal male violence, blamed and abandoned by community, at the mercy of religious laws, without recourse to justice. She is also one of the many women who refused to submit to this violence and stood up to defend herself.”

The execution of a young woman, a victim of gender-based violence, the group wrote, “is a regress in the eyes of international law and an irreparable damage for Sudan’s and perhaps more broadly Africa’s international reputation.”

Sudan is marked 140 out of 159 in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index, which quantifies gender inequality using income levels, political representation, reproductive health, maternal mortality rates and other measures.

One in three Sudanese women are married before the age of 18, Reuters reported, citing the United Nations.

Magango, of Amnesty International, said that by applying the “cruel” death penalty to a rape victim, Sudanese authorities failed to acknowledge the violence Hussein endured.

“The Sudanese authorities must quash this grossly unfair sentence and ensure that Noura gets a fair retrial that takes into account her mitigating circumstances,” Magango wrote.

“Noura Hussein’s life-long wish was to become a teacher but she ended up being forced to marry an abusive man who raped and brutalized her,” Magango added. “Now she has been slapped with a death sentence.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled and ranked Sudan in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Development Index. Sudan is ranked 140 out of 159 in the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. 

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