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As some report possible glimpses of an Arab Spring in Sudan, the Khartoum regime is increasingly desperate to crack down on any possible—or even imaginary—dissent, as the case of a British citizen falsely arrested and tortured makes clear.
British restaurateur Magdy el-Baghdady’s dream of opening a food truck to serve chicken and chips in Khartoum turned into a nightmare when the government of Sudan imprisoned him last year, accusing him of spying and inciting an Arab Spring. Now he’s suing for justice, claiming false imprisonment and torture, and The Times reports that the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, or FCO, has demanded a Sudanese inquiry.
Magdy told the Enough Project that he was raised in West London by a family of restaurant owners and that he traveled to Khartoum on January 27, 2011. There, he found a bus to be customized into a mobile restaurant and applied for licenses to sell barbecued and smoked chicken, chips, rice, and salad along Nile Street. He planned to donate leftovers to a mosque in Omdurman that houses orphans.
But on February 14—a year ago tomorrow—he was arrested by Sudan’s national security service, called NISS, and brutally interrogated in the political wing of the notorious Kober Prison. His interrogators apparently refused to believe that he was British and denied him access to the British embassy, Magdy told Enough. For five weeks, he says, NISS kept him in appalling conditions, and subjected him to beatings and torture, including a mock execution by firing squad. He was released on April 23, 2011.
When they learned that his mother is Polish, they accused him of being an Israeli spy, a charge that Magdy dismisses as ridiculous. “My dad’s an Egyptian chef, and a moderate Muslim; my mom’s a moderate Catholic.” Magdy does not proclaim any religious faith and, before his detention and torture, was not politically active. He says he came to Sudan with a plan to drive to hotspots where young people hang out, “and offer food a thousand times better and at a fairer price.” Then when the business was up and running, he would return to the U.K.
Nearly a year later, on February 6, 2012, Magdy told Enough, Michael Ryder, the U.K.’s special representative for Sudan, summoned the Sudanese embassy in London to the FCO to formally raise concern over allegations of mistreatment, and also arranged a call from the British embassy in Khartoum to the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to do the same there. Ryder reportedly expressed concern that the Sudanese government had detained a British national for several months without informing U.K. consular authorities, and also raised Magdy’s allegations of torture and mistreatment by Sudanese security forces.
“All men are tortured in Kober Prison,” Magdy told the Enough Project. “It is horrific stuff.” He detailed seeing men who were lashed, and men who were suspended from customized ceiling fans, then beaten. He reported that sometimes, officers sodomize men with metal reinforcing rods designed for use in concrete and masonry construction, causing anal bleeding. He reported seeing three men whose soles were burned off their feet. And he reported that in the political remand section of the prison, the suicide rate is high.
According to the text of an apparent FCO email received by Enough, Ryder “pointed out that these acts would be violations of Sudan’s obligations under a range of international treaties and a matter of deep concern. He asked for the Sudanese authorities to conduct a prompt investigation.”
Upon his release, the Sudanese government urged him to leave the country immediately. Magdy stayed behind, though, to file a claim in Sudanese court to clear his name and hold the torturers accountable, and then to file an appeal when the lower court rejected his claim. Now back in London, Magdy is working with a charity called Redress, whose mission is to end torture and seek justice for survivors. And he plans to file a lawsuit in the U.K. He says any money he wins in compensation he will donate to charity in order to raise awareness.
“It is lucky I am able to have something done about it. Much worse happens to Sudanese people who may never have a chance to let others know,” Magdy told Enough. “I very much hope my case will make a small difference. I must do it. No matter what it costs me, I will do it. Even if I fail, I may inspire one more person to do something. I am very hopeful.”
Jonathan Hutson is the Director of Communications for the Enough Project.
Photo: Magdy el-Baghdady