Khartoum Denies Its Security Services Detained Those Interviewed by U.S. Envoy Donald Booth in Darfur: How will the Obama administration respond?


Eric Reeves | August 17, 2016 | 

Between July 26 and July 28, 2016 the Obama administration's Special Envoy for the Sudans, Donald Booth, interviewed victims of the Khartoum regime's ongoing assault on the people of Jebel Marra. This brutal campaign has displaced between 159,000 and 194,000 peopleaccording to June UN figures. But given the various routes taken by those displaced, this range cannot provide a full statistical account of the number of people who have been burned or bombed from their homes.

A number of courageous Darfuris chose to meet with Booth during his visits to the Nierteti area (Jebel Marra, Central Darfur) and the Sortoni camp for those persons displaced by the Jebel Marra campaign (the camp is just north of Central Darfur in North Darfur). Fifteen of these people were subsequently detained/arrested by or at the direction of Khartoum's National Intelligence and Security Services and/or Military Intelligence (the latter has long held the primary security portfolio for Darfur). Those detained/arrested have no access to lawyers, family, or the human rights observers of the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMD). On Friday, August 12-almost two weeks after the first arrests-the Obama administration issued a statement declaring itself to be "gravely concerned" about the fate of those arrested following their meeting with the U.S. special envoy (the entire statement appears as Appendix A).


Obama administration Special Envoy for the Sudans Donald Booth

Yet in a dispatch dated August 16/17, 2016Sudan Tribune reports (see Appendix B) that Khartoum's Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, has denied all this-conceding only that there may have been a few arrested by "local authorities." But this is simply preposterous: Ghandour knows perfectly well that, given the very high stakes, arresting and pursuing those who dared to speak with the U.S. special envoy about the gravest human rights abuses and acute deprivation of humanitarian relief would be a matter no "local" authorities might decide to undertake on their own. Such authorities are merely subordinate extensions of Khartoum's security apparatus in Darfur; the arrests were made by the security services as punishment for those who dared to speak with Booth. (See my analysis of August 13, 2016 | These arrests also send a clear signal to other Darfuris who might be tempted to speak with international interlocutors.


Ibrahim Ghandour, foreign minister of the Khartoum regime

By denying that any arrests have occurred in connection with Booth's visit, Khartoum would seem to be daring the U.S. to respond further-to make good on its claim to be "gravely concerned" about the fate of men who were put in danger by choosing to meet with Booth during his visit. And although Booth would have learned some first-hand details in these interviews, the character and extent of the Jebel Marra assault was well known to Booth before he set foot in Darfur. His office has been briefed in detail by human rights investigators, Darfur researchers, UN and nongovernmental humanitarian personnel, and a number of sources on the ground, as well as by any satellite reconnaissance the Obama administration intelligence community might have devoted to assessing the scope of village destruction. The UN ascertained, for example, that in 2014 more than 3,000 villages were destroyed in campaigns by Khartoum's regular and militia forces, with destruction particularly savage in the East Jebel Marra region of North Darfur; the comparable number for January 2016 to the present could readily be estimated by means of satellite photography.

Nonetheless, the upshot is that Booth's visit was an important and welcome demonstration of continuing U.S. commitment to Darfur, and gave him credibility in any condemnation of the atrocities he heard of in such great number by the men now arrested. But Booth issued no statement on returning from Darfur, and whatever he conveyed behind closed doors to senior Khartoum officials was obviously not enough to prevent the retaliatory arrests that began three days after Booth's visit. Foreign Minister Ghandour's denial yesterday that any arrests have occurred has considerably increased the stakes for all involved.

Of the fifteen arrested, two have reportedly been released, but the security services continue to search for others who spoke with Booth and then fled, realizing the danger they were in for their courage and honesty. Radio Dabanga, which has been reporting regularly on these developments, has offered no update for several days-an ominous sign. Either their own reporters on the ground have been arrested as well, or the security services are making their arrests more surreptitiously-or there are simply no witnesses to arrests that occur in remoter regions of Jebel Marra, to which those pursued may have fled. Perhaps those fleeing remain in hiding.

The Obama administration must now decide how to confront Khartoum over this latest diplomatic and human rights affront. In the five days since the U.S. statement there have been no reports of any releases, and now Khartoum is denying that there were any retaliatory arrests in connection with Booth's visit. All this is of course entirely in character for the regime, but for the Obama administration and Envoy Booth this is new diplomatic terrain. Whatever desire for rapprochement with a regime guilty of serial genocides-the Nuba Mountains of the 1990s, the oil regions of what is now South Sudan, Darfur beginning in 2003, and the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile beginning in 2011-the administration cannot simply ignore the men whose fates have been determined by the visit of a senior U.S. State Department official.

The U.S. intelligence community does not care about these men-it cares only for better access to Khartoum's putatively valuable counter-terrorism intelligence, for which it is willing to pay any price in Sudanese lives. But the Special Envoy's office and the State Department must be better than this, must indicate clearly in this instance that we value the lives of non-Americans/non-Western lives and will not betray those who entrusted themselves in good faith to a senior U.S. official.

The Press Statement of August 12 makes clear that the Obama administration is well aware that these were not "local authorities" making arrests, as well as the retaliatory nature of the arrests:

The United States is gravely concerned about the Sudanese government's ongoing detention of at least 15 Darfuri individuals... The detentions followed a visit by Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth to Sudan's North and Central Darfur states as well as internally displaced persons (IDP) camps at Sortoni and Nertiti. (Notably the statement did not come from either the State Department or the Office of the Special Envoy for the Sudans-ER.) (emphases in bold in quoted passages have been added)

Darfur-now enduring its fourteenth year of genocidal counter-insurgency, targeting the non-Arab/African tribal populations of the region-has long been side-lined in Obama administration Sudan policy ("de-coupled" was the precise word choice of a senior administration official in 2010). This in itself is unconscionable given the staggering levels of ongoing human suffering and destruction that escalated in the wake of the region's "de-coupling." To date, some 500,000 Darfuris died; many tens of thousands of girls and women raped; more than 3 million people displaced from their homes (some 300,000 of them living tenuous lives as refugees in eastern Chad). There has been what appears to be a permanent, wholesale loss of African farmlands to Arab pastoralists, many not from Darfur but Chad, Niger, and other countries to the east of Darfur.

But the arrests of those who braved the known threats of arrest and torture-one highly reliable source on the ground reports that this has been the fate of at least some of the men arrested-cannot be ignored. As Radio Dabanga has reported:

According to Shafee Abdallah [coordinator of the Central Darfur camps for the displaced], the remaining detainees must be in "an extremely difficult situation as their relatives, lawyers, and representatives of human rights department of UNAMID have not been allowed to visit them" (Radio Dabanga | August 7, 2016, Nierteti, Central Darfur). (This report is not noted in the U.S. Press Statement.)

On August 15, 2016, Radio Dabanga reported the response of the Darfur Bar Association:

In their [August 14] letter to the National Secretariat for Human Rights, the Darfur Bar lawyers state that the detained displaced did not commit any offence. "They did not violate any law. They only spoke with the U.S. envoy, on his request, during an official visit endorsed by the Sudanese authorities," Darfur Bar Association deputy chairman Saleh Mahmoud told Radio Dabanga. He also pointed to the responsibility foreign envoys have towards the people they speak with in the countries they visit.

"We fear that the detained may be subjected to mistreatment and torture," Mahmoud added. "Among the detained are a number of elderly people who suffer from chronic diseases, and need regular medical care. By detaining them, the security apparatus is depriving them of their constitutional right to human dignity."

Given the responsibility of an Obama administration official for their plight, for their courage in speaking for their fellow sufferers, it would be unconscionable to ignore this particular barbarism by Khartoum.

Appendix A:

Concerns Regarding Detention of Darfuris by Government of Sudan Authorities: Press Statement, August 12, 2016

Elizabeth Trudeau, DirectorOffice of Press Relations, Washington, DC

The United States is gravely concerned about the Sudanese government's ongoing detention of at least 15 Darfuri individuals, including one Sudanese national employee of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). The detentions followed a visit by Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth to Sudan's North and Central Darfur states as well as internally displaced persons (IDP) camps at Sortoni and Nertiti in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur from July 26-28, 2016. Many others who were not detained were nonetheless questioned by security officials about the nature of their contact with the Special Envoy.

The United States immediately expressed its concern about the reported detentions to senior Sudanese officials, and we call on the Government of Sudan to immediately release all of those detained. These actions are particularly unfortunate as they undercut the Government of Sudan initially granting permission for the Special Envoy's fact-finding visit and allowing him to travel to areas and speak with individuals of his choosing. Such firsthand knowledge is important to shaping future U.S. engagement with the Government of Sudan and opposition groups and leaders regarding Darfur.

As Sudan seeks to pursue an inclusive national political dialogue, the Sudanese people need to be free to voice their opinions. The United States urges the Government of Sudan to respect its citizens' rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, including by the press, as these are vital elements for an environment conducive to an inclusive national dialogue for which all continue to work.

Appendix B:

"Sudan's FM denies detention of Darfuris after U.S. envoy's visit" | Sudan Tribune, August 16/17, 2016 (KHARTOUM)

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour Tuesday has denied the arrest of Darfuris who had met the United States Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan during a recent visit to Darfur region. Last Friday, U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning the arrest of 15 people including a local employee of Darfur hybrid peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), after a meeting with Ambassador Donald Booth who visited North and Central Darfur states from 26 to 28 July.

The arrested local leaders and representatives of displaced persons reportedly briefed the American diplomat about the atrocities committed by the Sudanese government militiamen during their attacks on rebel positions in Jebel Marra earlier this year. In statements to the official news agency SUNA on Tuesday, Ghandour said they had been informed about the alleged detention by the Special Envoy Booth after his return from Darfur. He added that they approached the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) which denied the claim.

"This is the official answer that we received, and the Envoy is aware of this answer," Ghandour said. However he was quick to add, "May be, there is someone arrested by the local authorities."

"But certainly there are some circles that try to sabotage those efforts (to improve bilateral relations) after the visit of the Envoy who got firsthand information on the situation in Darfur personally". "The government has nothing to hide, Otherwise it would not have coordinated the visit, and would not have supported the Envoy's travel to Jebel Marra under these circumstances," he stressed.

Reports by rights activists say the government militiamen of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have committed war crimes and atrocities on the civilian population during their attacks in the mountainous area of Jebel Marra particularly in that part of Central Darfur.


Eric Reeves, Senior Fellow at Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights


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