Sudan's tortured prisoners: a spotlight on the forgotten victims

Sudan's tortured prisoners: a spotlight on the forgotten victims
The New Arab has spoken with a Sudanese torture victim who has still not received asylum in Britain after seven years.
6 min read
Phil Cox was arrested and detained by Sudanese authorities for 70 days [Facebook/NVF/Phil Cox]
Phil Cox and Daoud Hari, a British film-maker and his Sudanese producer companion, were arrested in Darfur, southern Sudan, just before Christmas 2016.

The Rapid Security Force militia kept the two men in chains in the desert sun for days, before transferring them to the Sudanese authorities for interrogation.

"It is hard to describe being chained up beneath the desert sun," Cox wrote for the Guardian.

"Your face and hands slowly burn. Your tongue starts to swell and the blood inside your head pounds like a hammer."

But it was only when they were handed over to the Sudanese authorities that their troubles really began.

Cox describes in his article, with horrific detail, the awful experience shared by thousands of Sudanese people who end up in Sudan's hellish prison system.

Electrocution, torture and routine death threats were regularly inflicted upon the British journalist, who only saw an embassy representative after a week in prison.

The 'ghost houses'

Cox's experience, while entirely horrific, was not a special case.

Many Sudanese prisoners in Sudan's unacknowledged torture centres - referred to as "ghost houses" - never receive visits from either family members or lawyers.

To learn the true story of these ghost houses, The New Arab spoke with Mohammad Abdelrahman Nour al-Din, who was tortured by the authorities over a period of three years.

Nour al-Din was originally arrested in 2005 for belonging to the political organisation, the Federal Alliance of Darfur (FAD). As part of the National Democratic Alliance, the FAD was seen as a terrorist organisation for its opposition to Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir.

I am a diabetic and they knew that - so they deprived me of my medicine for weeks as a way of torturing me.

Describing his violent and brutal treatment, Nour al-Din said he was questioned on a daily basis until August 2008 - without regular food and sleep.

"I am a diabetic and they knew that - so they deprived me of my medicine for weeks as a way of torturing me," he said.

Nour al-Din said he received two basic meals a day and the guards would only give him his medication when he was close to death - before then allowing the cycle to repeat again.

"They interrogated me constantly - asking me the same questions over and over for weeks - it was always the same questions.

"They asked me about my time in England [Nour al-Din studied at university in England] - who was funding us [the FAD], who was involved and how we sent arms from England to the rebels in Darfur."

At night, the guards would blare out loud noises to prevent the inmates from sleeping and regularly shower the prisoners with water cannons.

"There was no toilet in our cells - we were made to go to the bathroom on the floor."

After three years of this horrendous treatment, Nour al-Din was released on the condition he did not leave the country and reported to the police in Khartoum every week. He ran away to Darfur almost immediately, where he met and married his wife in 2009.

Shortly afterwards, in early 2010, he was arrested again before escaping his prison cell and fleeing back to Khartoum.

In the Sudanese capital, Nour al-Din organised fake British visas for himself and his wife and flew to the UK. He has been waiting for the British government to approve his asylum status ever since.

Britain's shame

Victims of torture, under policies introduced by the Conservative government, are no longer automatically granted asylum, even if they can prove their stories.

Robert Goodwill, the UK's immigration minister told Parliament in March that applicants needed to show "a real risk of serious harm or persecution on return to their home country".

"This does not mean that all survivors of past torture will automatically qualify for protection," he said.

The minister's statement mirrors the government's most recent country guidance document for Sudan.

"A person must demonstrate that their activities are likely to be perceived as a threat to, and attract the attention of, the authorities in such a way that amounts to more than a routine," the Home Office says in its advisory document to asylum granting decision makers.

There was no toilet in our cells - we were made to go to the bathroom on the floor.

Waging Peace is a UK-based NGO which campaigns against human rights abuses in Sudan and helps Sudanese asylum seekers in Britain.

"It is outrageous that we work with so many individuals who have had their asylum applications in the UK turned down after suffering abuses identical to Cox and Hari's," said Maddy Crowther, a spokesperson for Waging Peace.

"Phil Cox and Daoud Hari's harrowing experiences should remind us of the Sudan government's true face.

"This is a regime that has for decades routinely detained and abused its own activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens, and that has bombed, burned, raped, and even chemically maimed its population with impunity."

Cox and Hari were arrested in Darfur for investigating accusations that the Sudanese government had allegedly used chemical weapons against its own civilians in Jebel Marra, Darfur - an allegation that the Sudanese government denies.

An Amnesty International investigation, involving in-depth interviews with dozen of civilians in the area, raised "credible evidence" that the government used chemical weapons in the area on around thirty occasions.

The international chemical weapons watchdog, OPCW, responded to Amnesty's findings, saying it was "not possible at this stage to draw any conclusions based on the content of the report".

Yet Amnesty says that the treatment of Cox and Hari is more proof of the Sudanese government's guilty conscience.

"The lengths to which the Sudanese government went to keep the two journalists out of Jebel Marra, including acts of torture, only suggests one thing: that it has something to hide," said Muthoni Wanyeki, a regional director at Amnesty International.

If no chemical weapons were used, then why not let the journalists get on with their job?

"If no chemical weapons were used, then why not let the journalists get on with their job?"

Cox wrote that his captors threatened to throw him out of an airplane unless he told them what he was doing in Darfur. This was the first of many threats to his life over 70 days of interrogation.

The allegation that Sudan is responsible for the arbitrary detention, torture and murder of thousands of political prisoners, should be too much for Khartoum to ignore - as Britain looks to drum up trade agreements once international trade sanctions are lifted in July.

The British government has raised the issue of Sudan's horrendous human rights record on numerous meetings with its counterpart in the Sudanese regime, yet no impact appears to have been made in Sudan's hellhole prisons.

Britain's minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, wrote in December that "the UK is pursuing a phased increase in direct engagement with Sudan."

"We have been clear with the government of Sudan that the current conflicts, human rights abuses, and business environment remain obstacles to a sizeable increase in interest from British companies.

And activists argue that while this system of torture and widespread human rights abuse is allowed to proliferate, Britain should stay clear of trade negotiations.

"This incident should call into question the UK's decision to bring Sudan in from the cold," said Maddy Crowther.

"Can we reasonably continue treating such a country as a reliable partner on migration, counter-terrorism, and increasingly even trade?"