Human Rights, Public Law, Asylum & Immigration

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Inigo Gilmore

Inigo Gilmore

Wednesday 28 March 2007 09.33 BST Last modified on Thursday 29 March 2007 09.33 BST

Shifting awkwardly in his chair, Sadiq paused for a moment before he began to unbutton his shirt. As he peeled it back over his slender shoulders, he revealed a grim patchwork of scars slicing across his torso.

“They came from all sides – there were three people doing the torturing – one was questioning me, another beating me, and another was behind me,” he said as he pointed out where his tormentors had left their mark.

“They just beat me everywhere. My whole body was numb so I couldn’t feel anything any more. I was bleeding everywhere, I was completely soaked in blood, and the room was covered with my faeces and urine. I was expecting to die, I never thought I would be alive now.”

I first met Sadiq at a secret rendezvous in early March, and since then have pieced together his story, which has become the basis of a special investigation about the Darfuri asylum seekers and torture, to be broadcast on Channel 4 tomorrow.

My journey to the rendezvous – a city hotel in an African country – had been relatively easy, but for 31-year-old Sadiq Adam Osman, the road here has been long and traumatic.

I’d been tipped off about his story by a humanitarian group, the Aegis Trust in Britain, who helped him escape from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where he says he was severely tortured by Sudanese security services.

The Aegis Trust is a genocide prevention charity and asked that the African country to which Sadiq, a Darfuri, had fled to and is now in relative safety should not be identified.

Sadiq said he only narrowly escaped with his life. The scars where his legs were pinned down with metal hooks and the marks on his forearms where he was bound up with ropes are now healing, but the mental scars appear to run very deep. His haunting, gaunt expression was disturbing as he clutched at his body, battered by beatings and illness.

Glancing about nervously, it became apparent that he was severely paranoid, telling me he feared Sudanese security agents were everywhere and were looking for him.

Over three days, he unfurled his extraordinary story, detailing how he had ended up in Khartoum after his application for asylum in the UK had been turned down and he had been sent back to Sudan in February 2007.

Campaigners say his case is unique in that it is very rare for a returned asylum seeker to emerge to tell their stories of torture. Some say it could constitute the most important challenge yet to the Home Office policy of deporting Darfuris to Khartoum – claiming it is a perfectly safe place for them to be returned to.

Sadiq’s story suggests otherwise and, disturbingly, bears many common features, not only with Darfuri asylum seekers in the UK but with others, too. For two years, the Home Office has returned Darfuri asylum seekers from the UK despite warnings from the UN and human rights organisations.

When Sadiq was sent back in early February, it was the first time he had been in Sudan since 2004, when he fled the violence orchestrated by the government-backed Janjaweed Arab militia.

He was worried because he had already been jailed and, he says, tortured as a teenager in 1990. Since the more recent explosion of violence, he had supported his brother, a rebel fighter, but, he said, did not take up arms himself.

He said he decided to flee after his mother and another brother were killed when their village was attacked by the Janjaweed and Sudan’s air force.

According to the UN, more than 200,000 people have been killed, and at least two million others – mostly ethnic African villagers – have fled Sudan’s western Darfur province. This week, Tony Blair called the situation “unacceptable”, reportedly floating the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone.

Encouraged by such words of international support, thousands of Darfuris have, like Sadiq, headed for Europe and the UK. After arriving here in September 2004 – joining a growing community of Dafuris – he participated in anti-Khartoum demonstrations in London.

We obtained photos from a protest held 15 months ago, showing Sadiq looking much younger and healthier. In one, he is wearing a T-shirt ‘Darfur survivor” – with the word “rejected” boldly stamped across in red.

It reflected his growing sense of frustration with the asylum process. Arriving illegally, he immediately applied for asylum based on his ethnicity as one of the Zaghawa tribe who have been targeted by the Janjaweed militia because of their association with rebel groups. He went through the arduous asylum process of appeal and counter appeal before ending in failure in the courts.

But this was despite the existence of what seemed a strong piece of evidence that he faced persecution if returned home. It was a warrant for his arrest from a military court – unknown to him and presented to his family in 2004. He got a friend to send it to the UK at the end of last year.

But neither his then legal team nor the home office got it translated. We did, and discovered that it contained a threatening warning that he would face prosecution in a military court if he did not turn himself in. His new lawyer, who found the document when she recently took over his file, was astonished.

“His case had gone through the whole legal system since September 2004 on the basis that he was at risk in Darfur and should not be sent back there but it was safe for him to go back to Khartoum,” Jovanka Savic, of Sutovic Hartigan solicitors in west London, said.

“This document was material evidence which showed he was not safe in Khartoum, and it should have been translated by the representatives and the Home Office. And it was not. The system failed him.”

I went to the Sudanese embassy in London to talk about Sadiq’s case with the ambassador, Omer Siddig. Even he conceded that an arrest warrant would have been taken seriously by the Home Office.

“Had it been correct, the Home Office here would not have let him be repatriated to the country,” he said. “Had it been true, they would have translated it.”

According to Sadiq’s lawyers it is authentic, as are his torture claims. I showed the ambassador some of the video evidence I had of Sadiq’s scars, and his allegations of torture at the hands of his government’s security services.

Mr Siddig remained impassive as he watched the video, and then said: “This is a claim he is making from his side, and I cannot confirm or deny that this thing happened.”

While the ambassador batted away some of the questions about international accusations of genocide and mass rape in Darfur, he admitted his government’s security services had committed abuses.

“Violence is committed in Darfur, and there’s lots of cases that were given to the legal system … those who committed such crimes were sentenced, including some army officers, security officers,” he said.

“In Darfur, yes there are some violations. But for things like this to happen in Khartoum is very remote, definitely.”

Campaigners say torture in Khartoum is anything but remote, and there are concerns that Darfuris detained in a new round-up in recent days could face the same fate. John Bercow, a Tory MP, who raised the Darfuri torture issue in the House of Commons this week, said the Home Office was playing with fire.

“Sadiq’s case is not isolated – I think there is a wider picture ” Mr Bercow said. “There have been many cases of people who have been instructed to return to Khartoum who have been intimidated, threatened and tortured having done so. It’s an extremely risky business for Britain to send people back.”

His sentiments are echoed by James Smith, the chief executive of the Aegis Trust, who said: “What is astonishing is that Home office officials are working so closely with Sudanese embassy officials and either they’re blind to what is going on, or turning a blind eye.

“Tony Blair speaks strong words about the need for the world to respond, but they’re negated by his own government’s action of returning Darfuris into the hands of the abusive security services.”

The Home Office gave us a statement in reply to Sadiq’s claims.

“In line with current case law, we continue to consider that it is safe to return to Sudan those Sudanese nationals who have been found by both the Home Office and the independent appeals process not to be in need of international protection,” it said.

“We do not routinely monitor the treatment of individuals once removed from the UK – we would not remove them if we considered that they were likely to suffer persecution on their return.”

The end of the road for Sadiq came in January, when the Home Office ruled that he was not at risk. He lost his appeal and was arrested and transferred to Oakington detention centre, near Cambridge, to await deportation.

Within days, he was at the airport and, on February 5, was flown on a Gulf Air flight to Khartoum via Bahrain. After arriving in Sudan’s capital he denied he was from Darfur, because, he said, he feared they might kill him.

“When I arrived at the airport an officer said to me, ‘come here you donkey’,” he remembered. “They took me into a small office and slapped me around and kicked me.”

As he continued to deny he was Darfuri, the officers became frustrated. “Later I was blindfolded, and taken to another location in a car,” he said. “Then I was in a room, and I was tied to a chair. After they tied me up, they beat me.”

The officers brought some photos taken in London of Darfuris protesting. “They said to me: ‘Do you know the people in these photos?’ My photo was among those they were showing me, except I looked different. I was wearing a hat and had long hair at the time. He asked me ‘do you know the people in the photos?’ and began calling out their names. I recognised one name.”

Sadiq’s claim that he was presented with photos of himself taken during protests over Darfuris is not unique among Darfuri refugees, and it is something I put to the ambassador. “Absolutely not!” Mr Siddig said. “I have no idea of what you are talking about. No one is monitoring Darfuris, and no one took any pictures around this embassy.”

But we have obtained video, shot outside the embassy, which clearly shows embassy officials filming Darfuri protesters and their supporters, including Glenys Kinnock and other campaigners. “So what is wrong if that happened?” the ambassador asked when I pointed this out.

Once confronted with these photos in Khartoum airport, Sadiq felt the game was up. He was taken, blindfolded, to an interrogation room at an undisclosed building used by the security services, where he said he was severely tortured. At one moment when his blindfold was removed, he saw some electric cables.

“My torturers were saying to each other: ‘Let’s just kill him’. One said: ‘Please just finish him off’. But one man said: ‘No, it’s too early – someone might hear the gunshots.'”

The men then left the room, and Sadiq, fearing he would be killed at any moment, made his move. “I managed to move my legs and clutch a shovel between them. I moved it towards my back and tore through the ropes tying my hands until I was free. I then ran outside and headed to a nearby hill where I got help from a local farmer.”

He managed to contact the Aegis Trust, which had attempted to help him during his time in the UK. The organisation helped him find new lawyers who have now launched a judicial review.

His asylum case will once more go through British courts – but now with evidence that torture took place and with the crucial arrest warrant document to hand. The lawyers believe they have a very strong case.

For Sadiq, finding a country of refuge, whether it be Britain or somewhere else, could not come soon enough. He is haunted by terrible nightmares and is deeply insecure about his future.

“I have no country, no family, nothing left,” he said. “My life is very difficult.”

  • Inigo Gilmore’s film about Sadiq will be broadcast tomorrow night on Channel 4 news, beginning at 7pm.