Any human rights activist who has worked on Sudan is familiar with the name Kober prison, the century-old British building which was ‘Cooper Prison’ for its first half century, and which has ‘graduated’ entire classes of Sudanese political leaders, from the early nationalists to the entire parliamentary, trade union and civil society leadership in 1989-90. Physically, much of the prison has changed very little over the decades and possesses a colonial-era aura. The buildings are brick, with the names of generations of prisoners carved into the stucco. It is clean. The prison authorities have a tradition of professionalism—they endeavour to stick to the rules, which include treating prisoners with basic respect. If anyone is arrested, his relatives are relieved when he arrives in Kober, because then he is relatively safe—it is in the security centres between detention and being formally remanded in custody, that the risk of abuse is greatest.
Two days ago, I passed through the gates of Kober for the first time. One of the immediate and tangible outcomes of President Thabo Mbeki’s mission to Sudan was that the government agreed to a request for members of the Panel to go and visit the JEM members, including leaders, held in Kober. They were captured during the attack on Omdurman last May. More than one hundred of them have been tried and sentenced to death. Among them is Abdel Aziz Usher, the brother of Khalil Ibrahim, and a number of other political and military leaders of the movement. Trying to secure a prisoner release has been a major concern of the Darfur mediation team headed by the former Burkina Faso Minister of the Interior, Djibril Bassolé. When Mbeki met with Khalil, Khalil made a specific request: could he arrange a visit to see his comrades in arms and check up on reports of ill-treatment. Until we visited on 24 June, there had been no official visit to the prison and nobody had been able to see the prisoners in private.
The Panel delegation was led by Judge Florence Mumba. We saw all the 104 prisoners in the shade of a rakuba in the prison yard, and we saw their cells. We asked to see six of the prisoners, by name, in private, for an hour. Among them were Abdel Aziz Usher and five other leaders. The prison authorities complied, and we had the chance to talk about their detention, trials, prison conditions, and political aspirations, without intrusion.
They had serious complaints about the fairness of their trials and their treatment under interrogation. They said that a number of those detained and convicted had nothing to do with JEM, but had just been caught up in the sweeps after the failed attack.
Life in prison is hard. The hardest parts are the shackles that each condemned man wears around his ankles, the heat and overcrowding, and being locked in the cells from 5 pm to 7 am without respite. But the prisoners were not tortured, had decent food, basic health care, two visits per month (supervised), and could socialize amongst themselves. They were also in good spirits, knowing that they were a major point of the Doha negotiations. The prison authorities also follow an implicit code whereby they treat political prisoners with a certain respect—after all, Sadiq al Mahdi, Ali Osman Taha, and Mulana Mohamed Osman al Mirghani have all been inmates, so who knows what the future holds in store for today’s prisoners?