Sudan

Sudan minister sees no reason for aid workers arrest

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM, June 1 (Reuters) - Sudan's foreign minister said on Wednesday he saw no reason why two international aid workers had been arrested for crimes against the state and pledged to solve the problem in talks with the United Nations.

Sudan this week arrested then released on bail two workers from the Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on charges of spying, publishing false information and destabilising Sudanese society.

The two, Vincent Hoedt and his British superior Paul Foreman, were arrested over an MSF report about hundreds of rapes in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region.

"I agreed with (U.N. envoy) Jan Pronk yesterday that there was no reason for the arrest of the two employees of the organisation and they will likely be released," Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters in Khartoum.

The two men are free but cannot leave Khartoum.

"When we come back from Rwanda I will meet Pronk and I will talk to him about how to find a solution to this problem," he said. He is due to return next week from the capital Kigali.

Earlier, the Dutch Foreign Ministry summoned the Sudanese ambassador to complain about the arrests.

"Aid workers should be able to do their work unhindered. ... There where they encounter abuses, they have to be able to denounce them," Dutch state secretary for foreign aid, Agnes van Ardenne, said in a statement.

THREE YEARS IN JAIL

Sudan's attorney-general, Mohamed Farid, said on Monday authorities had opened a criminal case over the MSF rape report that was published in March and details 500 rapes over 4-1/2 months in Darfur. He said the report was false.

Farid said the maximum penalty for the crimes is three years in jail and permanent expulsion from the country.

U.N. officials estimate about 180,000 people have died in Sudan's vast west since rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in February 2003. An estimated 2 million have been forced from their homes.

A U.N.-appointed commission of inquiry earlier this year found evidence of mass rape during the rebellion in Darfur, which rebels blame on militias known as Janjaweed. The government denies it supports the militias.

The MSF report contained anonymous accounts by victims of their ordeals, including being held and raped repeatedly for several days, beaten and even arrested.

The report, which received full backing from the United Nations, said more than 80 percent of the victims identified their attackers as militiamen or soldiers. It did not specify whether these included rebel factions.

Hoedt was arrested and released late on Tuesday on a bail of 1 million Sudanese dinars ($4,000), the MSF Holland office in Khartoum said. Foreman was formally charged on Tuesday.

MSF Holland said Hoedt was being questioned by Sudanese officials on Wednesday and Foreman was meeting with authorities to present a witness list.

Rights group Reporters Without Borders said the Sudanese government was trying to embarrass witnesses to crimes.

"If anyone should be brought before a court, it should be those responsible for the sexual violence and not the doctors who are trying to help the victims and make their suffering known," the group said.

Aid workers in Darfur often complain of harassment by authorities who keep tight control over their movements.

(Additional reporting by Marcel Michelson in Amsterdam)

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