Letter from KhartoumFrontline April 25, 2011
On January 30, I along with my brother Salah, a few of our friends and relatives took part in a peaceful youth demonstration (a right granted by the Sudanese constitution) on Qasr street in Khartoum. We were protesting against price hikes, tax increases, the state of the economy, corruption, the absence of basic rights and freedoms, and the general state of affairs in Sudan.
Within minutes, the demonstration was attacked by forces who were wearing riot police uniform. We suspect them to be costumed members of al-Amn, National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), as we would later see boxes of police uniforms stashed away in an al-Amn office. Without provocation they laid into us with their batons taking particular joy in snatching and beating female protesters.
Two of our friends, Salah, and I were arrested. Initially we were taken to a nearby al-Amn office, a few doors away from the Republican palace. Here, with arms raised, we were made to stand in the courtyard facing the wall while being whipped and beaten from behind. I quickly came to learn that this was al-Amn’s favoured position. They were not brave enough to face you, and were petrified of the idea of you seeing their faces.
When asked for my name, I gave it in full, “Yousif Mubarak Abdullahi ElFadil ElMahdi.” Their reaction made it clear that I was already under their radar. Immediately they led me, alone, into the office of someone who seemed to be the officer in charge. Here, we went through an hour of good cop, bad cop. The boss would pretend to interrogate me, asking me questions like “Why did you participate in the protest?” or “How did you know that there was a protest today?” Then, he would suddenly leave the office before I even had a chance to answer his questions.
The door would then close and the remaining four officers would attack me – punching, slapping, and kicking. One of them hit me on the head with the leg of a chair. While they were beating me, they were shouting all sorts of accusations, saying that they had been following me the night before when I supposedly organised a meeting to plot the downfall of the ruling National Congress party. I was actually in my home, plotting the downfall of Manchester United at the hands of Southampton in the FA cup. I am not a very good plotter though – Manchester won (they always do).
I was further accused of plotting to install my father into power (an opposition leader, of the Umma Party); then, it was my uncle (Sadiq ElMahdi, former prime minister); then, it was my cousin Mariam Sadiq ElMahdi (one of the officers was gloating about how he had previously arrested her). One of them eventually came to the conclusion that I was actually planning to take over power myself, hence, I was given the nickname prime minister.
From here, we – I, Salah, one of our friends, and another protester – were transported to al-Amn’s political office in Bahri, north of Khartoum. I had not seen Salah for an hour. Now his arm was damaged – heavily swollen, likely dislocated. He was clutching his shoulder.
In Bahri, we were made to crouch in front of a wall in the courtyard with our faces covered with pieces of cloth. Then, al-Amn officers took turns to insult and beat us. Anything went. We were punched, slapped, kicked, struck on the face, head, arms, legs, back, ribs, stomach, groin with whips, metal rods, and batons.
From the voices, I could tell there were about twenty of us. I recognised one of the voices as that of a friend who I did not know was arrested. From what he was saying I could tell that his younger brother was also arrested. The beatings went on for about three or four hours. I could tell the time because both Zuhr (noon) and Asr (afternoon) prayer calls went off while we were being beaten. While crouched facing the wall, I could hear men screaming in agony. It was clear that they were being subjected to torture in rooms nearby.
Shortly after the Asr prayer call, I was taken up to the second floor of a building where I was to be interrogated by three al-Amn officers. The interrogation was led by an officer named Sidoun. His interrogation lacked any structure or construction. For instance, he alleged sexual relations between two members of the Umma party – one a twenty-something male, the other a sixty-something grandmother – and asked me what I knew about that. One of his colleagues asked me to recite surah al-Kafiroon, while another asked if I was a communist.
Once this amusing interrogation was over, I was again made to crouch facing a wall, this time in the second floor corridor. Here, I heard the voice of Mohamed Adil, another friend. Again, I did not know that he was arrested. He was facing the adjacent wall and was clearly struggling. Later, I came to know that he had been electrocuted twice. He also contracted typhoid while in detention. Salah was also there, and the three of us were made to crouch in the corridor until the Asr prayer the following day. Almost twenty-four hours.
We were then led out of the building, across the courtyard and into a holding cell at the back of the compound. This makeshift cell (originally a generator shed) was actually a cage – around 8 x 3 meters in size, with concrete floor and zinc roof. In this cell there were about forty males, mostly students, some as young as eighteen.
Those students had been beaten to a pulp, as was apparent from the blood on their torn shirts. Most could not even walk. One of them crawled over to me. I could tell he was in endless pain. He asked me to cushion his head on my thigh, and then whispered “Did the demonstration take place, was it big?”
At that point, all I could think was how much heart those boys had. They were beaten almost to the point of disability and still wanted to know how the demonstration went. Their spirit was clearly not broken. It was clear that the majority of them had been arrested before the demonstration actually took place – most the night before, suspected of intending to participate.
That is how efficient al-Amn in Sudan is. They can actually read your mind and arrest you for intending something. As the day went by, I managed to quietly talk to most of the detainees. All of them had been tortured, in Bahri and at a number of other al-Amn offices that they were taken to before Bahri. Electrocution and brutal physical beatings were the common methods of torture for all of them. Some of them showed me injuries on their bodies where they were burnt with boiled sugar. A few were also stripped down totally naked and threatened with rape by an officer who would expose his genitals.
The first week we were there was the worst. We were deprived of sleep as anyone caught sleeping during the day would be beaten. Then, we were barred from using the toilet for long periods, depending on the mood of the duty officers. When we did get the chance to use the toilet, which was across the courtyard, officers would crowd around us kicking, slapping, and insulting us on the way there and back. This also happened inside the cage. Officers would come inside to attack and insult us.
We were given very little food. And there were absolutely no family phone calls, or contact with lawyers. Despite many being injured, ill, or both, there were no doctors. The worst treated were two Darfuri students, and a student belonging to the United Popular Forces, from Gezira. Those three were clearly singled out and accused of “attempting to give the Darfuri movements a national flavour.”
After the first week, Ibrahim Almaz, El-sir Gibreel Tiya, and other senior members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) were brought into our cage. al-Amn captured them in Darfur. From that point, we were largely left alone as the JEM members took over the attention and ire of the officers.
Almaz and his comrades were blind-folded and cuffed at the arms and feet. They were beaten endlessly with chains in front of our eyes; and, barred from using the toilet, sometimes for up to twenty-four hours. Every midnight, they were summoned and taken out of the cage. When they were returned to the cage a few hours later we could clearly see how badly they had been tortured. Gibreel Tiya had deep cuts on his feet which were swollen and looked infected.
Other Darfuris were also brought in and out at various times, from Kober and Dabak prisons where they had been held for twelve to thirty-six months. al-Amn accused them of being JEM loyalists. Most were middle-aged and old men who had been detained from all over Sudan. After talking to them, it was clear that their real crime was being somehow related to Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the JEM. Ironically, one of them was actually a member of the National Congress when he was arrested eighteen months ago.
One of them has twelve children (the eldest of them is twenty-two), and a wife back home in Halfa where he was arrested. The charges levelled against him were dropped by the prosecutor general over a year ago, on the grounds of lack of evidence. However, instead of releasing him, al-Amn just renewed his detention. He is forty-eight, but you would swear he looked at least sixty. Almost three years of prison had clearly taken the toll but he would not accept any sympathy for his plight.
Another cuffed and blind-folded detainee was actually a soldier in the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who was captured by JEM forces, and then recaptured by al-Amn during an attack on the JEM. As much as he tried to convince the al-Amn officers of his loyalty, it mattered little as he was from Darfur – a punishable offence in today’s Sudan.
The hatred, brutality, and prejudice those Darfuris were subjected to can not be fully described and all I could think was how in a million years would we be able to achieve peace in Darfur given the treatment meted out to its people by al-Amn. And this was not just in detention facilities, the officers regularly boasted of their conquests in Darfur – burning and pillaging villages.
On February 7, I was taken to my second interrogation, on my eighth day in detention. This time I was interrogated by an officer named Fadlalla, from Kosti. The same officer who exposed his genitals to Mohamed Adil while threatening to rape him. That interrogation was stranger than the first one.
Fadlalla was playing solitaire on his computer. There were long pauses between his questions as he thought of what to ask next. His questions were ridiculous: “If you were to get married would your wife also participate in demonstrations?” Amused, I responded that I could not answer that question since I had not met her yet. Then, he asked me to to predict whether she would or would not. You can imagine how the rest of the interrogation played out.
On February 13, a student member of the Democratic Unionist Party who had previously been arrested and released was re-arrested and brought back to our cage. That was for disclosing, through his Facebook account, details of the torture endured by the detainees. He was made to kneel on his knees with his arms raised and his feet off the ground, for full afternoons. A few days earlier, he underwent a surgery resulting from a car accident. At night, he was taken out of the cage, poured with freezing water and then beaten incessantly. We sat inside the cage helplessly listening to his groans and screams.
On February 16, the last day of my detention at al-Amn Bahri office, I was summoned to a final interrogation. This time I was interrogated by five al-Amn officers whom I did not encounter before. Each of them had a role to play: the conductor; the good guy; the bad guy; the silent guy who would occasionally quip, “This does not make any sense;” and, the tough guy who made the violent threats. The interrogation was split into two parts.
The first part was trying to implicate me as the organiser of the January 30 protest (supposedly, I was working according to my father’s instructions). They insisted that we were plotting in secret, holding clandestine meetings to attack the Republican palace in order to take over power. The funniest part was when they made reference to my birthday, January 29, and how holding the demonstration on January 30 confirmed that I was its organiser. When I laughed and offered, “Why not hold it on January 29 then,” I was told not to be smart.
The second part was an attempt to solicit information about my father with questions like “Tell us your father’s secrets,” or, “Play out an everyday conversation between you and your father.” Then, they started accusing me of being an economist, as if it was a crime. They continued, “Did your father ever ask you to prepare any economic papers for him?” Proudly I answered, “Yes.” For some reason they were shocked with my answer and fell silent before asking for examples.
I gave them some: “The effects of the global economic crisis on Sudan,” “The effects of South Sudan’s separation on North Sudan’s economy,” “Dutch disease in Sudan,” and various national budget evaluations. They asked me why he would want such information. I answered that he was a well-read man and liked to keep informed. Deep down, I wanted to say, “So that he can use it against you, silly.” One of them did that for me, exclaiming to his colleague, “He does economic spotting for his father, you idiot!”
Idiot he was, so were the rest of them.
That afternoon, I was released, feeling sad to leave so many behind. We are in an economic crisis and Sudan is faced with stagflation (one of the main reasons for demonstrating in the first place), due in very large part to the colossal amount of money allocated for feeding the intelligence services. For nothing – they are a complete farce.
Yousif ElMahdi is an economist and activist from Sudan.
In print: Independent World Report — Issue 6/Spring 2011.