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Sudan31 May 2005

Arrests of Medecins Sans Frontieres staffers called "disgraceful and ridiculous"

The methods being used by the Sudanese authorities to try to intimidate the staff of the humanitarian aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), over a report about rape in the western Darfur region are "disgraceful and ridiculous," Reporters Without Borders said today.

The director of MSF’s operations in Sudan, Paul Foreman, was charged yesterday with publishing false information, while MSF’s regional coordinator for Darfur, Vincent Hoedt, was arrested today for what was probably the same reason.

"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 press freedom organization said.

"We salute the courage of MSF’s employees who, in very difficult circumstances, have been reporting truths which the authorities cannot stand," Reporters Without Borders said. "This Sudanese government offensive against embarrassing witnesses has assumed alarming proportions and the international community must be firm in its response, insisting that all charges be dropped unconditionally and demanding guarantees that aid workers can henceforth work freely in Sudan."

Foreman was summoned to the justice ministry yesterday and charged with spying, publishing false reports and undermining the Sudanese state because of a report entitled "The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur" published on 7 March by MSF-Holland, which coordinates all MSF activity in Sudan.

Compiled by MSF doctors, it detailed some 500 cases of rape in the course of four and a half months in Darfur, where armed insurgents have been fighting government forces backed by militias since 2003.

After a warrant was issued for Foreman’s arrest and a lengthy interrogation by police, he was released on bail late yesterday pending trial. Attorney-general Mohamed Farid told the news agency Reuters that the report was false and that the authorities had asked MSF several times to produce evidence in support of its claims.

When MSF refused to name its sources or share their medical files, Farid said he decided to bring Foreman before a criminal court on a charge of publishing false reports that undermined public order. This kind of false report damaged Sudan’s image, he said.

Foreman said he was ready to confront the Sudanese authorities in court but under no circumstances would he disclose his sources.

Hoedt was transferred to Khartoum following his arrest today in Nyala, in the southern part of Darfur. The charges against him are not yet known.

A Norwegian church NGO reported on 6 January that five of its members were arrested and charged in Darfur after filming bodies taken from mass graves and interviewing rape victims about their ordeals.

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