By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, June 28 (Reuters) - An international aid group called on Sudan on Thursday to rewrite its laws to protect women from "mass rape" in the war-torn Darfur region.
A report from U.S.-based Refugees International accused government-backed armed groups of systematic sex attacks on women and girls in the country’s remote west.
Legally, it is "all but impossible" to prosecute rapists, the report found.
Women who admit to being raped risk prosecution for having sex outside marriage — an offence punishable by 100 lashes or death by stoning, it added.
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment on the report. But Khartoum has often denied that mass rape occurs in Darfur, accusing Western media of sensationalism.
Human rights lawyer and member of parliament Ghazi Suleiman said Sudanese law carried adequate, severe penalties for rape.
"If the rapist uses force, he is going to be sentenced to death. If it is without consent but there is no force, he can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years and 100 lashes," he said.
But he added enforcement was unlikely in Darfur’s conflict.
"It is chaotic there — no one is sovereign. It would be unrealistic to expect the full enforcement of the law — do you expect an officer to testify against his fellow officer in this situation?" he asked.
Under international pressure, Sudan agreed this month to a combined U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force, but many diplomats doubt Khartoum will keep its word.
International experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million been driven from their homes in more than four years of revolt in Darfur. Khartoum puts the death toll at 9,000.
LACK OF JUSTICE
Rights groups accuse government troops and allied militia of systematic rape as part of an anti-insurgency campaign.
With a breakdown of command and control over the past 18 months, rebel groups have also been accused of rape.
Authorities have punished humanitarian agencies that have published documented cases of hundreds of rapes in Darfur.
The report from Refugees International said: "Rape victims suffer from an almost complete lack of access to justice, and the government is more likely to take action against those who report and document rape than those who commit it."
The report called for a decree protecting women who failed to prove a case of rape from being charged with the Islamic offence of "zina" — often translated as adultery or sex outside marriage.
Courts should give equal weight to testimony from men or women, it added. "In prosecutions for rape, many judges require the sexual act to have been witnessed by four competent men, verification that is all but impossible to obtain."
Sudan needed to lift soldiers’ immunity from prosecution, train judges and recruit more female police officers, the report said. It urged Sudan to include sexual attacks with objects, including rifle barrels, in its definition of rape.
Refugees International also called on peacekeeping African Union forces in Darfur to step up their protection of women and girls in refugee camps.
Women were raped as they left camps to collect firewood, it said. And the few women who secured a rape hearing risked further assault as they walked from their camps to remote court buildings, it added.
The report was based on interviews with lawyers and aid workers in Khartoum. The team said it was refused permission to visit Darfur and told to stop working by Sudanese authorities eight days into the mission.