With strong local push, Sudan releases activist

July 15, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Support from around the world, including from Pittsburgh-area Sudanese, to free an activist and aid worker arrested in May in Sudan resulted in the woman’s release Wednesday.

Hawa Abdullah, 26, was released in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and taken to a local hospital for a checkup, said Khairunissa Dhala, who is with Amnesty International’s Sudan campaign, based in London. Amnesty verified Ms. Abdullah’s release with its own Sudanese contacts and with the United Nations agency she was working for when she was arrested.

“It has been reported that she is in good health,” Ms. Dhala said Thursday.

Ismail Omar, a Darfurian immigrant who lives in Castle Shannon, was elated when he learned of the release Wednesday.

“It is very good news,” said Mr. Omar, who started the local support for Ms. Abdullah after getting to know her via several phone calls in the month prior to her arrest. “Now I want to find out what I can about her situation.”

Mr. Omar’s efforts starting in mid-May led to letters calling for Ms. Abdullah’s release being sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton from, among others, Pittsburgh City Council; Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

“It’s always great to be part of something that can have an effect on the other side of the world,” said Councilman Bill Peduto, one of six city council members who signed a letter to Ms. Clinton.

Mr. Doyle felt similarly: “All of these efforts are important. It’s never possible to know which, if any of them, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but you can be sure that if nobody in the international community had taken action, she’d still be in a Sudanese government prison.”

Mr. Casey praised Pittsburgh’s role in her release, saying: “Hawa’s release is a testament to the hard work of the Pittsburgh community and to the role that local citizens can play in international events. Since taking office, I have worked for a more effective U.S. policy on Darfur, which has become ever more pertinent in the wake of South Sudan’s independence last weekend.”

Pittsburgh’s role in Ms. Abdullah’s release began earlier this year, when Mr. Omar was looking for more information about the displaced persons camps in his former homeland in Darfur.

A friend put him in touch with Ms. Abdullah, who worked in Darfur for the United Nations/African Union Mission In Darfur peacekeeping force, known as UNAMID, at a camp for displaced persons called Abu Shouk.

They spoke by phone twice before she was arrested May 6 at her home after receiving death threats by text message, Amnesty said.

She was accused of working with the Sudan Liberation Army, a terrorist group, and converting from Islam to Christianity and then trying to spread Christianity.

Those allegations are false, her supporters said, and are potentially life-threatening accusations in the predominantly Muslim northern part of Sudan. Because of that, Mr. Omar said, “I never believed they’d let her go.”

Exactly why she and other political activists were released Wednesday was not known, Ms. Dhala said.

The timing was curious to Sudan watchers, coming just days after the independence day for the newly created Republic of South Sudan, which officially split from the north July 9, following a nearly unanimous vote by its residents last year.

“Maybe it wasn’t too difficult to do, since with [problems like] Abiyea, they needed some good publicity,” said David Rosenberg, coordinator for the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, which helped Mr. Omar push for Ms. Abdullah’s release.

Abiyea is a disputed border region between the north and the south of Sudan that the north invaded in May, upsetting international observers and the south.

Support around the world from places like Pittsburgh all helps, Ms. Dhala said.

But Ms. Abdullah’s release also has the benefit of being a dose of good news in the midst of ongoing challenges in Sudan, Mr. Rosenberg said: “Once in a while something good actually gets done.”