By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Sudanese woman who met friend for coffee and cake in London Starbucks confronted with pictures of encounter and detained for five days by Sudanese officials at Khartoum airport
The Starbucks visited by Saira Ahmed
By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent7:35AM BST 20 Oct 2014
In a cramped Starbucks near a shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, a Sudanese woman talked over coffee and cake with a fellow dissident from her homeland.
Months later, Saira Ahmed was confronted with pictures of the west London encounter by Sudanese officials who had detained her at Khartoum airport.
She was held at the end of a two-week trip to the rebellious desert region of Darfur. Her five-day ordeal at the hands of Sudanese officials led her to fear she would lose the baby she was carrying.
“They had photographs of me meeting my friend for coffee opposite Shepherd’s Bush Green,” recalled Mrs Ahmed. “It was such a tight little shop and very dark. I remember having to squint to see the coffee cakes. But the photographs were extremely sharp. I remember thinking how strange it was that I did not notice this person spying on me. He or she must have been very close.”
During the ordeal last year, Mrs Ahmed (not her real name) was taken to a detention centre several miles from Khartoum airport. In many respects it resembled a spacious villa and was filled with men smoking cigarettes.
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She was locked in one of the bedrooms with bars on the window and a hard mattress for a bed. Questioning sessions over the first two days lasted for 12 hours. Then for the next three days, Mrs Ahmed was set a number of arduous physical tasks, cleaning the rambling residence and moving furniture.
“I was five months pregnant and they knew this. They had questioned me night and day and given me very little to eat,” she told The Telegraph. “Then they ordered me to start cleaning and stopped asking questions.
“I thought I was going to be a slave for ever. I was terrified and cried all the time. I was so fearful for my baby.”
After three days the ordeal ended. The agents put Mrs Ahmed in a car and drove her to the airport. “I couldn’t believe I was going home. The Sudan regime had decided I was an enemy because I met with a Darfur independence activist in London. I nearly lost my baby.”
Foreign Office officials said Mrs Ahmed had not made her concerns known to them. “We haven’t received any specific complaints from members of the Sudanese community in the UK about their activities being monitored by the Sudanese authorities,” a spokesman said. “We would encourage anyone who believes they have been the victim of criminal activity to report this to the police in the first instance.”
The Sudanese embassy refused to comment on the allegations, but one Sudanese opposition activist told the pressure group Waging Peace that the regime was abusing the asylum system to gain access to the UK.
“Sadly some of these people have been unwittingly supported by some refugee organisations and by our community,” the activist said. “Some of them are well known to us by their crimes against our people in Sudan whereas some hide themselves in cities across the UK so that they cannot be identified by our community.” Thousands of Sudanese have gained asylum in Britain as a result of the brutality of Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP) dictatorship.
Activists claim the regime maintains an active web of spies in London and other British cities that have become centres of opposition to the regime.
“Some of the spies work at the Sudanese embassy as civil servants,” the opposition activist claimed. “But they are here for different missions such as money laundering, buying property, lobbying for the NCP and information gathering amongst the opposition.”