"I crossed from being a journalist to a subject": Journalist speaks on kidnap and torture in Sudan

Phil Cox was detained and tortured for 70 days by Sudanese authorities

A British journalist who was kidnapped, detained and tortured by the Sudanese authorities for 70 days was able to produce a film about his ordeal by hiding a memory card in his anus.

Channel 4 News commissioned Phil Cox and Daoud Hari to report on the impact of illegal migration through Sudan and investigate allegations of Sudanese government attacks on civilians in Darfur using chemical weapons.

"We wanted an independent assessment - especially because we thought this was a public interest story," Mr Cox told Moncrieff. "We wanted to see how and what was going on there."

He crossed the border of Chad into Sudan along with his colleague Daoud Hari in December 2016 with the aim of reporting on the plight of people in the Darfur region – but was soon abducted by armed militiamen.

"The Chadians were following us - I was the only white journalist on the border. The Chadians informed the Sudanese that we crossed the border.

"It's an area that's very hard to cover as journalists. The big news organisations don't really go there anymore."

Mr Cox said the Sudanese government were hunting him for 15 days before being caught in Darfur, and had put a “capture or kill” bounty on their heads for more than £250,000.

"They hid us because they didn't want other groups to come and capture us and claim the bounty," he said. 

Empowered

It was at this point that Mr Cox was able to trick his captors into filming themselves. He began 'teaching' two young guards to how to use his camera, but while doing so, would press the record button. Unbeknownst to them, the pair ended up filming their actions.

He said that while he was filming, it made him feel empowered – he wasn’t just a captive, he was still working.

"Being a hostage, you lose everything - it's pretty terrifying," he said. "Having this camera and being able to video gave me a bit of power back."

He took his memory card and, in order to preserve the footage he had already obtained, wrapped it in a strip of black plastic and hid it inside himself. In doing so, he risked his life.

The militia then separated the pair – leaving Daoud in the desert and transporting Phil, blindfolded, to what he believed to be a plane. He was told that he would be thrown from the back of a plane, and begged for his life.

"I'd originally been keeping it in my sock, and then I transferred it to where the sun doesn't shine," he said. "I got really worried because I thought, 'well now we're going to get taken and I don't have that card'."

Then, things changed, and they went back through the desert, picked up Daoud where the pair were transferred to Kober prison. They were in a cell together for just a few hours, when Daoud was removed.

Torture

This was the start of weeks of mistreatment. During his 40-day detention, Phil was asphyxiated, beaten, given electric shocks with a cattle prod and once subjected to a mock execution.

"It was pretty shocking," Cox told Moncrieff. "There's no other way to describe it other than torture."

They asked him about what footage he had, and what he had filmed. He told them, but said it had all been deleted. He said that he kept himself going, knowing that the footage was hidden inside him the whole time. His captors also refused to believe he was a journalist.

"When you're in an interrogation, the problem isn't not tell the truth. it's when you tell the truth and you aren't believed. Then you sort of don't know what to do, and that was very hard."

There were other men in his cell with him – students, elderly, workers. They were all detained without being formally charged, under suspicion of opposition activity. 

"They were all wonderful people," he said. "It was sad to see them oppressed."

Prison life

His daily routine involved waking up first and exercising by running on the spot, but would imagine that he was jogging around Victoria Park.

In the evenings, he would tell the same fairy-tales he would have told his 7 year-old son Romeo, back in London.

He was granted two counselor visits with UK embassy staff during his incarceration which he said "really helped".

After repeated overtures from the US and UK governments, Mr Hari – a Sudanese national granted asylum in the US – was released on 18 January, followed by Mr Cox on  February 1st.

He described his post-hostage life as "a new frontier".

"You have to deal with it psychologically," he said. "But also, you have a window into these places where unfortunately, many men, women and young people are taken into these oppressive regimes.

"Suddenly I crossed from being a journalist to a subject [...] It really takes you to a different level of understanding."