SUDAN WATCH: 'Sudanese Govt. trying to silence aid workers'

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

'Sudanese Govt. trying to silence aid workers'

London, May 31 Associated Press report:

Rights and aid groups say the arrests of two officials from an international humanitarian group that spoke out about rapes in Darfur show how far the Sudanese Government will go to keep news of atrocities off the world's front pages.

"They don't want witnesses to what is going on in Darfur," said John Ashworth, a human rights researchers who has followed Sudan for 22 years. "The Government is clearly complicit in what is going on, and they don't want foreign voices shouting about it.''

The foreign workers feeding, clothing and succouring the people of Darfur have an all too intimate view of the region's horrors. The Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, for example, based much of its March report on rape on what doctors treating victims had seen and heard.

MSF said its doctors collected medical evidence of 500 rapes over 4 1/2 months, and that more than 80 percent of the victims reported that their attackers were soldiers or members of government-allied militia. The Sudanese Government is accused of responding to a two-year-old rebellion in Darfur with a counterinsurgency campaign in which militiamen known as Janjaweed committed abuses - including killings, rape and arson - on such a scale that some have labelled what is happening there genocide.

On Monday, the Medecins Sans Frontieres overall Director for Sudan, was charged with spreading false information and told not to leave the country pending trial. On Tuesday, its Darfur coordinator was detained and brought to the capital.

Spokeswoman Susanne Staals, said there are situations in which her group, also known as Doctors Without Borders, would confine itself to delivering aid and not also work to spread information. But MSF could not remain silent on Darfur "because the scale of the violence is immense and no action is being taken to protect victims,'' she said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam.

Leslie Lefkow, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has tracked developments in Darfur, said targeting Medecins San Frontieres was part of a pattern that included the arbitrary arrest and detention of or threats against more than 20 workers from several foreign agencies over the last six months.

Tinke Ceelen, Director of a Dutch agency that advocates for the rights of refugees and displaced people around the world, is among those who have been detained. Ceelen said she, a colleague and four journalists who had been recording interviews with displaced people in Darfur were stopped in December as they prepared to fly out.

Their tapes and other materials were confiscated, and they were interrogated over several days and told they faced the death penalty on espionage charges. Ceelen credited pressure from her own Government and others for their release, which came after they recorded apologies for unwittingly violating Sudanese rules.

"It was all very ugly,'' said Ceelen, adding Sudanese officials told her several times during her detention that they were angry at how the conflict was being portrayed in the foreign press, and seemed to blame foreign aid workers.

"I'm convinced it's part and parcel of an ongoing intimidation campaign against relief workers,'' Ceelen said of her detention.

Lefkow said aid workers and foreign journalists also were finding it increasingly difficult to get permission to visit Sudan, all part of what she called an attempt "to draw the veil over Darfur so that it drops off the international agenda.''

Sudanese officials denied there was a campaign to interfere with aid agencies' work.

"There should not be any mixing of legal action taken against somebody and humanitarian action,'' Ahmed Adam, an official in Sudan's Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "Legal procedures here or anywhere in the world are no impediment to humanitarian work.''

In Geneva, human rights chief Lousie Arbour, said on Tuesdaythat targeting the humanitarian community for doing its work "will not only do a disservice to the people of Darfur; it will draw attention away from the real criminals, those who continue to rape, kill and pillage with impunity.''

Journalists working in Darfur have found aid workers willing to talk about the atrocities they have witnessed and been told about, but often on condition of anonymity, not even allowing the names of their organizations to be used. They say they fear that if the Sudanese government knew who was speaking out, it would punish them by barring them from working in Darfur.

For months after the conflict broke out in early 2003, Sudanese officials severely limited international aid organizations' access to Darfur. Humanitarian workers were only allowed in after protracted negotiations and international pressure, and many feel their status remains precarious.

"We hope we can continue our work and continue to speak out,'' MSF's Staals said, adding the world must know what is happening in Darfur so that it can be moved to act and stop the violence.

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