LAST DECEMBER, a doctor residing in Khartoum fell into conversation with a taxi driver. After a while, the driver stopped the car and began to weep. When the doctor asked what was the matter, the young man lifted his shirt to reveal his back, criss-crossed with weals and dotted with cigarette burns. He was an engineer, detained for suspected opposition to the government of Sudan, tortured, blacklisted, and now forbidden either to carry out his profession or to flee the country and join the estimated three million Sudanese living in exile abroad.
"Nowadays everybody in Khartoum knows of someone who has been tortured," recounts the doctor. At last, the outside world is beginning to catch on as well. In March, 35 countries at the 49th session of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in Geneva signed their names to the committee's first public denouncement of the human rights record of the government.
All Sudanese citizens now live in a climate of repression. Since the coup in June 1989 led by General Omar al Bashir, political parties and trade unions have been outlawed, non-governmental newspapers are censored or banned and thousands of men and women have been purged from the civil service, the judiciary, the army and other institutions. Against this background, individuals are arrested and interrogated by means which range from bullying intimidation to life-threatening torture in the now notorious "ghost houses", or secret detention centres.
In the "theatre of war", primarily the south, human rights abuses take the added form of widespread extra-judicial killings or summary executions, well-documented by both the London-based Sudan Human Rights Organisation (SHRO) and international groups including Africa Watch and Amnesty International. Large-scale killings by the army in the southern capital, Juba, in the summer of last year are just one example. Hundreds of people are reported to have been arbitrarily executed, as government forces made house-to-house searches after incursions by the rebel Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA).
The various factions of the SPLA, which spend as much time fighting one another as engaging in combat with government forces, treat the local population under their control just as harshly. Conditions are equally bad in government and rebel held territory. Besides outright repression, the spectre of famine looms ever larger, raising the prospect of a catastrophe of Somali proportions. Yet it was only with...