Aid worker held in Sudan for 'crimes against state'

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Sudanese security forces detained a Briton working for the aid agency Médecin Sans Frontiérès after it published a report detailing hundreds of rapes allegedly carried out by militiamen in the Darfur region.

Paul Foreman, who heads the MSF's Dutch branch in Sudan, was held yesterday and charged with "crimes against the state" before being released on bail on the condition that he does not leave the country.

Mr Foreman, who divides his time between the UK and Sudan, where his wife also works at a separate agency, has been charged with publishing false reports, undermining society in Sudan and spying, the agency said. It is the first such action taken against the head of an aid agency since the start of Sudan's Darfur conflict in 2003.

Sudan's attorney-general, Mohamed Farid, said the authorities had opened a criminal case over MSF Holland's report, which listed 500 rapes it said had occurred over four and half months in Darfur. Eighty per cent of the rape victims reported that their attackers were militiamen or soldiers. It said that its doctors had medical evidence of the rapes. Mr Farid said the report, which received the full backing of the UN, was false.

"We have issued a warrant for the arrest of the head of the organisation after speaking to the [governmental] Humanitarian Aid Commission," he said. Under Sudanese law, Mr Farid said MSF should have consulted and co-ordinated with the commission before publishing any such information or reports.

Mr Farid said the authorities had asked MSF several times for the evidence on which the report was based, but the agency had refused to provide it. Mr Foreman said earlier that he could not violate the doctor-patient relationship by allowing access.

"The reports and the victims of rape are both very real and we continue to do our medical work in Darfur," he said. In a statement, MSF said it "rejected any notion" that the report was false, adding that the report does not accuse the Sudanese government.

Martyn Broughton, head of communications for MSF's London office, said the agency was "outraged and dismayed" by the arrest, but added that Mr Foreman, who has been involved in international aid for many years , was a "committed, passionate" worker. He added that he was "calm, reflective" person well capable of handling the "difficult situation" he is now in. Mr Foreman will be required to return to the police station where he was charged for further interviewing tomorrow, Mr Broughton said.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the fighting in Darfur and more than two million forced from their homes to camps around the region. Reports of rape are widespread in the conflict, and a UN-appointed commission of inquiry found evidence of mass rape during the conflict.

Rape is a sensitive subject in Muslim Darfur, and victims are often ostracised by society. Pregnancy out of wedlock, even as a result of rape, is also illegal as Islamic law is in force.

Mr Farid said it was unlikely any action would be taken against the agency itself: "We need the organisation MSF to do its medical work," he said.