Thursday 22 February 2018

Standing up for victims of torture

Beaten, whipped and left for dead in Sudan, Dr Ahmed Osman survived. Now he wants to become a voice for those still in the firing line

Human rights activist: It was Dr Ahmed Osman's work for Médicins Sans Frontières that led to his torture. Photo: Arthur Carron
Human rights activist: It was Dr Ahmed Osman's work for Médicins Sans Frontières that led to his torture. Photo: Arthur Carron
Case: Judge Maureen Harding Clark criticised the rejection of Dr Osman’s asylum application

Celine Naughton

It's a bright, sunny afternoon and as the Dublin traffic trundles its way outside, Dr Ahmed Osman sips coffee in a cosy corner of the North Star Hotel. It's a far cry from the torture houses of Sudan where, on April 23, 2009, he was almost beaten to death.

A qualified obstetrician/gynaecologist who has been a human rights and opposition party activist since his student days, he became a marked man while working with Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Darfur where he highlighted the systematic rape of women by soldiers of the Sudanese army.

"They kill the men and rape the women," says the 42-year-old. "They use rape as a fear tactic to ensure people don't oppose the government. I knew it was going on - I just hadn't realised the scale of it until I started working with MSF."

His findings were used to help MSF compile a report on rape in Darfur, and it was this, he claims, that brought him to the attention of the Sudanese security forces.

Case: Judge Maureen Harding Clark criticised the rejection of Dr Osman’s asylum application
Case: Judge Maureen Harding Clark criticised the rejection of Dr Osman’s asylum application

"A relative in the army heard that I was to be terminated," he says. "I left Darfur and went to North Sudan, where I set up a private clinic."

On March 4, 2009, the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest of Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, torture, pillage and displacement of large numbers of civilians in Darfur. The Sudanese government responded by expelling all Western aid agencies from Sudan, including MSF.

"That very day, members of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) went to my clinic, but I wasn't there," says Dr Osman. "They then called to my house. My housemate answered the door and warned me that security men were waiting for me outside. I ran out the back, jumped over the fence, and fled to Khartoum.

"I was on the run for two weeks when they finally tracked me down. Four of them took me to a ghost house in the middle of the night. They whipped me, and kicked me in the head and in the testicles. Then they injected some kind of acid into my urethra."

He recalls the pain of the acid was so terrible that even being kicked was preferable.

"Pain exploded in me," he says. "It was excruciating, the worst agony imaginable. I begged them, 'Please kick me again. Stop this.'

"The last I remember was being kicked in the head and I lost consciousness. They must have continued to torture me, because up to then they hadn't whipped my belly, but later I discovered lash marks there too. They finally threw me on the street near my house."

Dr Osman says his torturers left him for dead to give the impression he had been randomly murdered and so provide the pretext for a false homicide investigation. But somehow he survived.

"People passed me by, because they feared for their own safety. After many hours I managed to half-stand, half-crawl to my house. My phone was there. I never carried it with me. If the authorities found it, they would go after all my contacts. I retrieved it and called a friend.

"She persuaded me to file a complaint with the police, which I did, but once the NISS realised I was still alive, they came after me again and I had to go into hiding.

"Whatever they had put into my urethra, I couldn't pass water for four days. I knew I was about to go into renal failure. I had no access to surgical equipment, so without anaesthesia or sterilisation, I stuck a cannula through my belly and into the bladder to release the urine. It was incredibly painful, but it was that or die."

Through his human rights contacts, Amnesty International arranged a passport for Dr Osman and flew him to Cairo, where a psychiatrist treated him for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

From there, the Irish charity Front Line helped get him to Ireland. He was treated for PTSD as an outpatient at St Patrick's Hospital, and was directed to Spirasi, an agency that helps torture survivors here. They arranged sessions for him with a psychotherapist.

"That helped me so much," he says. "For some time I avoided talking about the torture, because I had such terrible flashbacks. I thought about ending my life. But the psychotherapist didn't put me under pressure; she let me speak about other things, and gave me breathing exercises to do, and after a few months, I started to feel better."

Dr Osman applied for asylum, a process that took five years.

Having had his initial application rejected by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, an appeal to the Refugee Appeal Tribunal (RAT) was also denied. He then turned to the High Court, where Judge Maureen Harding Clark issued a harsh criticism of the RAT ruling, which she described as "unfair, irrational and full of errors". She said it appeared to be based on the fact that the tribunal member who refused the application did not like the applicant, as he had met all the criteria to be classed as a refugee.

Throughout this time, Dr Osman lived in a direct provision centre in Mosney, Co Meath. Like other asylum seekers, he was given basic food, bed and board, and €19 a week to live on. He describes his experience of direct provision as being in an "open prison".

"You have to pass security on entering and leaving. You have no right to have a friend over and you are forbidden to work. If you leave the place for more than three days, you lose your weekly allowance and your medical card. At least in prison, you know when you will be released. I spent five years in limbo. It was emotional torture."

But there were happy moments. Through the reunification programme, his partner Tagwa, came to Ireland, and they married in 2011. A qualified engineer, Tagwa got a job in Scotland - she flies back to see her husband every two weeks - and they have a 10-month-old son, Vasili.

Registered with the Irish Medical Council, Dr Osman became an Irish citizen in January 2015 and is starting to pick up part-time work in hospitals around the country. He spent a month in Wexford General Hospital and two weeks in Tallaght Hospital as a HSO. He'd like something more long-term, but as he says: "My CV was interrupted for a long time. I will never forget what Ireland has done for me, and I want to give back what I can. I want to help people here, and from time to time, do humanitarian work abroad.

"I'm lucky to have so many good people around me. But people are being tortured every day and nobody is speaking up for them. They need a voice. That's why International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is so important. It helps to raise consciousness about what's going on, and puts pressure on governments to help reduce the incidence of abuse. Mostly, I hope it brings home the message that in the face of evil, we have to stand together as human beings."

Today is World Refugee Day, and June 26 is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Spirasi provides support, education and rehabilitation programmes to help survivors of torture integrate into Irish society. For further information, visit spirasi.ie

Irish Independent

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