Sudan changes law that left rape victims punished for adultery

London - Sudan has overhauled a law that led to rape victims being put on trial for adultery, a crime punishable by jail, flogging or even stoning.

The change comes a year after a young Ethiopian woman in Sudan was convicted of committing indecent acts after being gang-raped, a case which sparked international outrage.

Lawyers say that when a woman in Sudan reports rape it is often seen as an admission of zina - the crime of sex outside marriage.

They say the new law introduces a precise definition of rape as a penetrative sexual act involving physical or psychological force.

"In the past the law was confusing and very problematic. In most cases when a woman complained she had been raped she would be tried for adultery," said Hikma Ahmed, a Sudanese lawyer who helped defend the Ethiopian woman.

"This amendment is very helpful for rape victims or survivors seeking justice, and it is also helpful for us lawyers who are supporting these women in court."

The change follows more than a decade of campaigning by local and international rights organisations.

Ahmed said the 19-year-old Ethiopian woman was gang-raped by a group of men after being lured to an empty property in Omdurman, near the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

She was arrested early last year after a film the rapists made of the attack surfaced on social media.

At one point, campaigners feared she could have faced a possible sentence of stoning for adultery, but the court accepted she was divorced.

The woman was eventually sentenced to one month in jail and fined 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($850).

Six men arrested with her were sentenced to fines and lashes for offences including adultery, indecent acts and distributing indecent material, according to international rights group Equality Now. A seventh was freed due to insufficient evidence.

Equality Now cited another recent case where a 14-year-old girl was charged with adultery after her uncle raped her, leaving her pregnant.

"The change in law is a cause for celebration," said Jane Serwanga, a lawyer for Equality Now. "It is also a positive example for other countries.

"But the law is not enough, the courts and police need to be properly informed and sensitised to ensure rape survivors can access justice," she said by phone from Nairobi.

Ahmed, who works with rights group Women Living Under Muslim Laws, said some rape victims had been flogged in the past while others had been held shackled in prison along with their children.

She said she had not heard of a case of a rape victim being stoned, although the punishment remains on the lawbooks for married women who commit adultery.

Equality Now said the amendment was signed by the president two months ago but that it had only recently received a copy.

Sudan's Ministry of Justice confirmed the law was changed in February.

($1 = 5.9400 Sudanese pounds)