KHARTOUM (Reuters) â€” Sudan arrested the local head of an international aid agency on Monday over a report on hundreds of rapes in Darfur in the first such action against a top relief worker since a rebellion in the area began in 2003.
Paul Foreman, the country head of the Dutch branch of aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told Reuters he had been arrested but was being freed on bail.
MSF Holland expressed outrage at the arrest.
Sudan’s attorney-general, Mohamed Farid, told Reuters authorities had opened a criminal case over MSF Holland’s report in March detailing 500 rapes over 4-1/2 months in Darfur. He said the report was false.
The MSF Holland report said its doctors working in Sudan’s western Darfur area, where tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2 million forced from their homes, had medical evidence of the rapes in the western Sudanese region.
Foreman said he had been taken to a police station and spoken to the authorities.
“I am under arrest but being released on bail,” he said, adding he was in good health.
Farid said the arrest warrant had been issued after consultation with the governmental Humanitarian Aid Commission. Under Sudanese law, he said MSF should have consulted the commission before publishing any reports.
Jeff Prescott, General Director of MSF Holland in Amsterdam, said the agency had sent lawyers and extra staff to Sudan.
“We are actually outraged. We have a large presence in Sudan and have been there for many years,” he told Reuters.
Farid said the authorities had asked MSF Holland several times for the evidence on which the report was based, but the agency had refused to provide it. Therefore, they came to the conclusion the report was false.
“If they don’t give us the medical documents we will send them to the criminal court accused of publishing a false report which harms the general peace,” he said. He added the maximum penalty would be three years in jail.
Farid said Foreman would not be allowed to leave the country.
The report, which received full backing from the United Nations, said more than 80 per cent of the victims reported that their attackers were militiamen or soldiers. It did not specify whether these included rebel factions.
Before his arrest on Monday, Foreman told Reuters he could not violate the confidential doctor-patient relationship respected world-wide by giving authorities medical documents.
“The reports and the victims of rape are both very real and we continue to do our medical work in Darfur,” he said. Reports of rape are widespread in the conflict, which has forced refugees to flee to makeshift camps. A UN-appointed commission of inquiry found evidence of mass rape in Darfur.
Rape is a sensitive subject in Muslim Darfur and victims are often ostracised by society. In anonymous accounts by victims, the report described how some women were held for days, raped repeatedly and beaten. It said some victims had been arrested. Pregnancy out of wedlock is illegal in Sudan, where Islamic sharia law is in force. “These kind of false reports damage the image of Sudan,” Farid said.
Farid said it was unlikely any action would be taken against the agency itself: “We need the organisation MSF to do its medical work in Sudan … and to be present here,” he said. “But it has to do its work in its specific capacity and this (report) is not within its capacity here.”
Aid agencies operate under tight regulations in Sudan and often complain of harassment from local authorities in Darfur.
On Saturday, aid agencies told visiting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that they were prevented for several days from entering Kalma camp in South Darfur, Darfur’s largest camp housing about 110,000 displaced.