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Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing’s on the wall… | Global development

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In the new dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned in 2019 to the country of her birth for the first time in years. Her mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It proved unexpectedly straightforward.

“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: ‘Anything you want’.

“Nobody harassed us. Nobody told us what to do. Nobody asked us for the script. I call this time in the history of Sudan ‘the honeymoon’,” says Mirghani.

Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York.
The Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty

More than two and a half years after the toppling of the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil into which Sudan has again been plunged means she feels unable to return safely.

On 31 October, as her film, Al-Sit, won the latest of many awards, Mirghani had to give an acceptance speech that was anything but celebratory.

Six days before, the military had seized power in a coup, detaining the civilian prime minister and bringing the country’s fragile transition to democracy to an abrupt halt.

In a video address from Qatar to the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland, Mirghani said “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the civilian-military partnership government. “Now,” she added, “we’re in very serious danger of going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression.”

Since the coup, a lot has happened: huge pro-democracy protests thronged through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 demonstrators killed.

After almost a month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was released as part of a deal struck with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

A still from a film, with a young girl talking to her grandmother as they sit next to a lamp at night
A still from Mirghani’s film, Al-Sit, about a young girl’s arranged marriage in Sudan. Photograph: Courtesy FilmFreeway

But the protesters, who want the military out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less so as security forces fire teargas into the crowds that continue to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now hanging in the balance, Sudanese artists feel they have to speak out.

“We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power,” writes Aamira*, a painter, in an email from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the achievements of the last few years”.

It may not have been uppermost in his mind, but one of those achievements was the flowering of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the daytime, which would have been just impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.”

Street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum.
The street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of the former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum. Photograph: Assil Diab

Feeling compelled to return amid the revolutionary fervour, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made her name painting the faces of the revolution’s “martyrs” on the outside of their families’ homes, with a getaway car close by in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.

For Mirghani, the “absolute elation” of the revolution yielded creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a Sudanese village girl whose parents want her to marry the sharp-suited son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you had wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s amazing.

“My film is about women’s rights. It’s social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago,” says Mirghani.

The “honeymoon” was not without its challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and a reluctance to champion the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was patchy: in 2020, the renowned film-maker Hajooj Kuka and several others were detained during a theatre workshop.

Asim*, a documentary film-maker in Khartoum, says that, although in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not as relaxed. “It’s partially freedom and partially censorship,” he says. “It is a battle about 10% won.”

Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist based in Qatar, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artist Fund (SAF), to provide budding creatives with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public art and design library. He says: “I thought: this is it. All doors were open and this is what we were going to do.

a cartoon of a protester draped in Sudan's flag painting a red line through a street sign showing a U-turn
The political cartoonist Khalid Albaih makes his point about the recent coup attempt. Photograph: Khalid Albaih

“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years I’m in Sudan walking around, not scared of any police, or secret police, or anything. I went to every business owner in Sudan and everyone that can donate money to these causes. And I got nothing but rejection – for a library and for an artists’ fund.”

Finally, Albaih secured $7,000 (£5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organisation, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $500 in October – just before the coup. “It was incredible because the internet cut out [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send the money to him,” says Albaih.

The cartoonist knows there will not be any more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things will go. It’s going to be really hard for artists and these kinds of initiatives to move forward.

Women walk past a hoarding with graffiti of silhouetted protesters
Women walk past graffiti reading in Arabic: ‘Freedom, peace, justice and civilian’ in the Burri district of Khartoum in 2019. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

The coup, says Diab, left the creative community feeling “disappointed and just broken down … because we finally thought we were free and then this happened.” She intends to apply for political asylum in the US, where she is studying, feeling she “can be of better use to Sudan” from overseas.

Those in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a protest in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “teargassed the entire afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He is realistic about future challenges but knows that people have made up their minds.

“I feel like there is a grip on power and it will not end today; it will not end tomorrow. Whether those power-hungry authoritarians will roll with democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and film-makers to operate or not, that is something that is still [up in] the air, because you never know with the ever-changing dynamic of power in this country,” he says.

The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe that is possible and I believe there is hope. The people will not stop asking for what they really want. [Will] that future come tomorrow? The day after? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree it has to happen.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identity

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‘We’re next’: Prisoner’s secret filming appears to show torture in Cairo police station | Global development

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A video obtained by the Guardian appearing to show Egyptian police torturing detainees in a Cairo police station confirms the extent to which officers appear able to inflict violence on civilians with near total impunity, according to human rights groups.

The video, covertly recorded by a detainee through a cell door, appears to show two inmates hung in stress positions. The detainees are naked from the waist up and suspended from a metal grate by their arms, which are fastened behind their backs.

“Watch how they are torturing us and our colleagues. They came and told us we’re next,” one detainee says. Addressing the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi he says: “Mister president, we want to ask why the police in el-Salam First police station are doing this to us.”

The video is one of two believed to have been recorded in November last year inside a police station in the working-class el-Salam neighbourhood of northern Cairo.

In the second, which the Guardian is not showing to protect detainees’ identities, inmates in an overcrowded cell line up to display injuries they say were inflicted by police officials and investigators, including open wounds on their heads and bruises across their chests and backs. “They are hitting us with sticks,” they say.

Humans rights groups said the videos are visual evidence of widespread abuses that they have been documenting in police stations and detention centres across Egypt for the past decade.

The Guardian has taken steps to verify the videos where possible, including requesting an assessment of the videos by a trusted expert. Detainees shown in the video also name multiple police officers who are listed in news reports as serving at el-Salam First police station.

The videos surfaced nearly 12 years after the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old civilian, in police custody in Alexandria in June 2010. Said’s death proved to be a watershed, inciting public anger at the impunity of security forces and their treatment of Egyptian citizens, and sparking the protests that began on 25 January 2011, a national day traditionally honouring the police force. The 18 days of nationwide protests that followed ended the decades-long reign of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where abuses by security bodies were widespread.

Yet 11 years after the uprising, testimonies and evidence collected by rights groups allege that abuses by Egypt’s security services are once again out of control. Since coming to power after a military coup in 2013, Sisi has presided over a renewed era of impunity for security forces, down to the lowest ranks of the police.

Despite a clear prohibition on all forms of torture in Egypt’s 2014 constitution, trials and convictions of security officials for torture or deaths in custody remain extremely rare, while abuses are regularly documented. Domestic organisations monitoring torture and abuse in detention now struggle to continue their work, amid a prolonged crackdown on civil society activity.

“Police stations are even worse than prisons,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, a former detainee and now exiled activist, describing his experience in detention. “The revolution happened because of this, and 11 years later we see it happening again.”

Screengrab from the prisoner-shot video showing injuries to his fellow detainees.
Screengrab from the prisoner-shot video in an Egyptian police station showing injuries to his fellow detainees.

Amr Magdi, an expert on Egypt at Human Rights Watch who reviewed the videos for the Guardian, said that the detainees’ injuries and the use of stress positions are consistent with documented examples of torture in detention centres. “They all show signs of severe beatings, and they mention batons and wooden sticks which are routine torture tools,” he said. “These videos show the sad and horrifying reality of Egypt’s detention system as the police enjoy near-absolute impunity.”

Magdi said that abuse was common in police stations, where mistreatment can occur away from public view. “We know that most physical torture happens in police stations and secret NSA [National Security Agency] detention centres during the initial days or weeks after arrest, and before detainees are taken to larger prisons,” he said.

Human Rights Watch detailed the use of stress positions and the systemic use of torture in police stations in a report in 2017, describing the issue as a potential crime against humanity. The report cites 19 individual cases where detainees “were tortured in police stations and national security offices across the country, including Alexandria, Aswan, and cities in the Nile delta”. For some, torture occurred in multiple places of detention.

“The basic tools of torture were electrocution and stress positions, accompanied by beatings with fists, wooden sticks or metal bars,” they said.

Police and NSA officers “handcuffed suspects’ arms behind their back, pulled up their arms, placed their handcuffs over the top edge of a door, and hung them above the floor, an unnatural position that caused excruciating pain in the back and shoulders, sometimes dislocating them. Some officers pulled suspects’ legs downward to increase the pain,” they said. They added that detainees were often left in stress positions for long periods.

Rights groups have also documented frequent deaths among those detained. In 2015, Amnesty International provided evidence of at least nine deaths in custody in the Mattareya police station in Cairo. Three years later, it demanded an investigation after the suspicious death of 43-year-old Gamal Aweida in custody in the Mansheyet Nasir district of the city.

In rare cases of accountability, a small number of police officers have been sentenced for shooting civilians in public over the past decade. In 2016, Sisi publicly instructed the interior ministry to prevent abuses by police following an outcry after an officer shot dead a taxi driver. Last year, a police officer from the el-Salam Second police station was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour for shooting a civilian in the chest and wounding another.

Yet convictions for deaths in custody are rare, even for low-ranking police officers. Four noncommissioned officers were imprisoned by prosecutors in 2020 for torturing a man to death at a police station in Giza. In December 2020, nine police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for beating a street vendor to death in custody in Cairo in 2016.

The Egypt State Information Service, interior ministry, and current and former officials at the interior ministry either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by the Guardian to discuss video evidence of abuses and the issue of torture in police custody.

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EU not evacuating staff from Kyiv

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The EU will not evacuate its staff from Kyiv, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Monday before the meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers, who will have a video conference with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken. “Blinken will explain the reasons for this announcement, we are not going to do the same thing, […], we don’t have to dramatise, the negotiations are going on,” Borrell said.

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‘I’ve already sold my daughters; now, my kidney’: winter in Afghanistan’s slums | Global development

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The temperature is dropping to below zero in western Afghanistan and Delaram Rahmati is struggling to find food for her eight children.

Since leaving the family home in the country’s Badghis province four years ago, the Rahmatis have been living in a mud hut with a plastic roof in one of Herat city’s slums. Drought made their village unliveable and the land unworkable. Like an estimated 3.5 million Afghans who have been forced to leave their homes, the Rahmatis now live in a neighbourhood for internally displaced people (IDP).

There are no jobs. But the 50-year-old has hospital fees to pay for two of her sons, one of whom is paralysed and the other who has mental illness, as well as medicine for her husband.

“I was forced to sell two of my daughters, an eight- and six-year-old,” she says. Rahmati says she sold her daughters a few months ago for 100,000 afghani each (roughly £700), to families she doesn’t know. Her daughters will stay with her until they reach puberty and then be handed over to strangers.

It is not uncommon in Afghanistan to arrange the sale of a daughter into a future marriage but raise her at home until it is time for her to leave. However, as the country’s economic crisis deepens, families are reporting that they are handing children over at an increasingly young age because they cannot afford to feed them.

Delaram Rahmati
Delaram Rahmati, who sold a kidney to support her family. Photograph: Rukhshana Media

Yet, selling her daughters’ future was not the only agonising decision Rahmati was forced to make. “Because of debt and hunger I was forced to sell my kidney,” she tells Rukhshana Media from outside her home in the Herat slum.

Afghanistan is on the brink of “a humanitarian crisis and economic collapse”, according to the UN. The agency’s ambassador to Afghanistan has said it is “experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis of its contemporary history”. Drought, Covid-19 and the economic sanctions imposed after the Taliban seized power in August 2021 have had catastrophic consequences on the economy. Dramatic rises in inflation have resulted in soaring food prices.

The kidney trade has been growing in Afghanistan for some time. But since the Taliban took power, the price and conditions under which the illegal organ trade takes place has changed. The price of a kidney, which once ranged from $3,500 to $4,000 (£2,600 to £3,000), has dropped to less than $1,500 (£1,100). But the number of volunteers keeps rising.

Rahmati sold her right kidney for 150,000 afghani (£1,000). But her recovery from the operation has not been good and now, like her husband, she is also sick, with no money left to visit a doctor.

More than half of the country’s estimated 40 million population face “extreme levels of hunger, and nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine”, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. For a growing number of Afghans, selling a kidney is their only way to get money to eat.

Herat city’s slums
Since leaving the family home in Badghis province four years ago, the Rahmatis have been living in a mud hut with a plastic roof in a camp in Herat city. Photograph: Rukhshana Media

“It has been months since we last ate rice. We hardly find bread and tea. Three nights a week, we can’t afford to eat dinner,” says Salahuddin Taheri, who lives in the same slum as the Rahmati family.

Taheri, a 27-year-old father of four, who scrapes together enough money for five loaves of bread each day by collecting and selling recycled rubbish, is looking for a buyer for his kidney. “I have been asking private hospitals in Herat for many days if they need any kidney. I even told them if they need it urgently, I can sell it below the market price, but I haven’t heard back,” Taheri says. “I need to feed my children, I have no other choice.”

In the past five years about 250 official kidney transplants have taken place in the hospitals in Herat province, with a very limited number being a family member donating their organ, says Asif Kabir, a public health official in the province. The cost of a kidney transplant is 400,000 afghani, plus the price of the kidney, according to Kabir.

But the true number of kidney operations may be far higher. A doctor working in one of the hospitals where most of the transplants take place, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says: “Recently the number of people who want to sell their kidney has increased in Herat and most of them live in the displaced camps, in Herat’s slums. The customers also go to the displaced camps to find a cheap kidney.”

Sayed Ashraf Sadat, a civil society activist in Herat, was a member of a delegation assigned by president Ashraf Ghani to investigate the illegal kidney trade in May 2021.

Chinar’s scar from kidney surgery.  Her husband is sick and she had to sell her kidney to feed their children
A nurse looks at Chinar’s scar from kidney removal surgery. Chinar, who lives in the Herat camp, said her husband is sick and she had to sell the organ to feed their four children. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP

“We found that the hospitals were not working according to the law. People are working inside and outside the country to encourage people to sell their kidneys. These people get them visas and send them to the other side of the border. There is more demand for kidney transplants outside Afghanistan. Countries like Iran need kidneys, and poor Afghans are forced to sell them.”

Sadat says the investigation he was part of identified two hospitals in Herat where kidney transplant operations take place; one of them said it had completed 194 operations and the other said 32, but more than 500 people were claiming to have sold their kidney, 100 from a single village in Herat. “This shows the kidneys were taken outside Afghanistan,” says Sadat.

“For example, a kidney is purchased for 300,000 afghani (£2,100) inside Afghanistan, and it is sold for more than £7,500 to £11,000 outside the country,” says Sadat.

“We found evidence that some are encouraged to sell their kidneys, taken outside the borders, and their kidneys are sold for 200,000 to 400,000 afghanis ,” says Sadat. “It seems that the doctors are involved in the illegal trade. But unfortunately, our investigation was stopped due to a worsening security situation.”

Sardar Muhammad, who sold his kidney, shows the scar
Another Herat camp resident, Sardar Muhammad, who sold his kidney, shows the scar from the surgery. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP

Two months have passed since Rahmati’s kidney operation, and the money has already gone to pay off medical debt. Her recovery from the operation continues to go badly.

“I am so sick. I couldn’t even walk because the wound has been infected. It is very painful,” she says, adding that the recipient of her kidney only paid for the operation fee, two nights in hospital and her first medicine bill.

On the day of the transplant, Rahmati was sick and the doctors refused to operate. “I couldn’t breathe properly, so the doctors took me down from the hospital bed, but I returned. I told them ‘I am happy with my own death, but I can’t tolerate seeing my children hungry and ill’,” she says.

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