Thursday

3rd Dec 2020

Feature

Belgium's collaboration with Sudan's secret service: my story

  • Belgium's secretary of state for asylum and migration, Theo Francken tweeted this image in 2017 of his meeting with the Sudanese ambassador, promising action on the refugees in Brussels' Parc Maximilien (Photo: Twitter)

Cairo, 2013. A Sudanese journalist asked me to meet with a Sudanese refugee in one of the bars of downtown Cairo. Back then, I lived and worked in Cairo.

The refugee was a young man, with the name Mubarak, an Arabic name meaning "the blessed".

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  • Koert Debeuf: 'Several of them told me they were detained and tortured in the airport after their arrival back in Khartoum. After having noted every story carefully, I decided to go public again'

When he told me his story, his life appeared not to be blessed at all. A soldier who deserted, he tried to flee Sudan three times after he refused to execute an order to kill someone.

Twice he was caught, put in prison and tortured. The third time he succeeded in reaching Cairo, but had to change apartment every week, as he was afraid the Sudanese secret service, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), was searching for him. In Cairo.

Obviously, he didn't feel safe in Egypt and wanted to go to Europe. I wrote letters to several ambassadors and embassies, but no-one responded.

He told me several times he would take his chances with one of the boats to Italy, but I tried to convince him not to embark on such a dangerous adventure.

In May 2015, Mubarak sent me a message: "I am in Italy." He had taken the boat from Egypt. Two weeks later, he had reached Italy.

By foot and by train he then went to Belgium. After a long procedure, there he received asylum.

Sudanese secret service in Belgium

Brussels, August 2017. Mubarak forwards me a tweet from Belgium's secretary of state for asylum and migration, Theo Francken.

In his tweet, Francken posted a picture of himself with the ambassador of Sudan and the message that Belgium and Sudan would cooperate.

In order to do something about the Sudanese refugees sleeping and living in the Parc Maximilièn in Brussels, Sudan would send an "identification delegation" to Belgium.

This delegation would meet with the Sudanese refugees, identify them and give them a travel document to be returned to Sudan.

After having lived for five years in the Middle East, I was now back in Brussels as head of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy Europe.

When I read of this Belgian-Sudan cooperation story, I panicked. How could the Belgian minister not know that this delegation would be full of secret service agents?

And how could he cooperate with one of the world's nastiest dictatorships, led by Omar al Bashir, the only sitting president to be wanted by The Hague court for genocide and war crimes?

I decided to go public with my warnings. But to my surprise, Francken didn't change course. On the contrary, the visit of the Sudanese delegation seemed only to have speeded events up.

'Handcuffed and insulted'

Francken sent me a message saying I didn't know who was in the delegation, and so that I should shut up about secret service agents.

But the very same day I received an anonymous message from someone who worked at one of the hotels where they stayed.

This person sent me the ID cards of each of the delegation members.

Through Sudanese contacts I managed to find out that at least half of the delegation members were known secret service agents, working in several Sudanese administrations.

Then, the most appalling part of the story began. Several refugees who had had to appear before the delegation told me in detail how it had taken place.

First they were arrested and had to sit on the ground, handcuffed, one behind the other with their legs open while the police were insulting them.

When each of them had to see the delegation, there was no Belgian police officer or other civil servant present. If someone was present, he or she clearly didn't understand Arabic.

The delegation received a list of the names from the Belgian police. So, the Sudanese knew - most of the time - who was sitting in front of them.

The delegation immediately started to threaten the refugees with what could happen to their family back in Sudan if they wouldn't return.

Some refugees who had previously asked for asylum, then decided to cancel it - as in their view the Belgian government had cooperated with the Sudanese regime, which could only be dangerous for them.

Scared for their family's safety, some agreed to go back to Sudan. Others refused to say anything, or to cooperate in any way.

But agreeing or not, most were given a permit to be deported to Sudan, and were brought to a detention centre where they waited for the next flight to Khartoum.

One Sudanese refugee talked to a lawyer, asking for his release.

A Belgian court ruled that the Belgian state could not deport him before the courts had ruled on the custodial measure.

He was brought to the airport anyway. A man in uniform threatened him in Arabic to use sedatives if he proved difficult. The refugee then signed a paper authorising his own deportation.

Jail or torture back in Sudan

I had contact with six of the deported Sudanese once they had arrived back in the country they had desperately fled.

Conversations all happened via WhatsApp, the only safe way of communication. It was difficult, as all were terrified the secret service would find out they were still communicating with foreigners.

Several of them told me they were detained and tortured in the airport after their arrival.

After having noted every story carefully, I decided to go public again.

The stories led to a large government crisis. Some demanded the resignation of secretary of state Francken.

The Belgian government decided to ask the General Commissariat for the Refugees and Stateless to investigate the stories.

The commissariat is hardly independent, as it works with the secretary of state on a weekly, if not daily, basis. The head of the commissariat is appointed by the government.

The report came three months later. It stated that the procedure followed in the Sudan case was flawed and that human rights could not always be guaranteed.

However, but more importantly media-wise, it said there was no proof the deported Sudanese had been tortured.

One deported Sudanese did confirm to the commissariat that he was tortured, but that confirmation was missing in the report.

The Sudan crisis was over for the Belgian government, and I was blamed for lying, or at least exaggerating.

European Court of Human Rights

Strasbourg, 27 October 2020. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rules that in the case of one deported Sudanese, the Belgian State has violated articles 3 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ruling repeats almost word-for-word the report of the Tahrir Institute.

It proves not only that the appalling behaviour of the Sudanese delegation and the Belgian state had violated human rights.

It also proves that the report of the commissariat was biased - to say the least.

More importantly, this is not just a Belgian problem. Other countries like Italy, France, and the Netherlands have deported Sudanese people in similar circumstances.

In the meantime, the murderous regime of Omar al Bashir was overthrown by a popular revolution. Sudan is in the midst of a democratic transition.

One of the first people jailed was the Sudanese ambassador to Belgium, for his responsibility in many crimes as former deputy head of the Sudanese secret service.

Mubarak has now been trained in Belgium as a bricklayer, and is trying to find work.

I am now editor-in-chief of EUobserver and thought it might be good to tell this story, in the hope it would not happen again soon.

Because, well, isn't this the European Union?

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is editor-in-chief of EUobserver.

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