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They met in South Sudan, where American Nancy Williams and Sudanese Rudwan Dawod were both working. The two fell in love and married, and they're expecting their first child in September. But while Nancy Williams Dawod is home in Oregon, her husband, who has U.S. residency, is in Sudan — in detention, facing terrorism charges and possibly a death sentence.
He is due to appear in court next week.
Dawod is a Muslim from restive Darfur and was visiting his family in the capital, Khartoum, en route to starting work on another volunteer project for the NGO Sudan Sunrise in recently independent South Sudan. In the past, he has helped build schools in the South and had plans to rebuild a church destroyed during the long civil war.
But on July 3, Dawod was arrested after his group Girifna, which means We're Fed Up in Arabic, organized a peaceful demonstration.
In June, university students started a wave of protests against the government of President Omar al-Bashir and against austerity and the high cost of living in Sudan. Rights groups say up to 2,000 people have been detained.
Speaking before his arrest, to Paris-based France-24 television network, Dawod said: "I'm not fighting against al-Bashir in person. He's not the only problem. I'm fighting against the discrimination. I'm fighting against the marginalization, the lack of freedom, the lack of democracy."
Dawod concluded: "We really need to do a lot in Sudan. I really love Sudan. I belong to the U.S., too, but this is my native country, so I will live here forever, and I will die in Sudan, too."
Allegations Of Spying
His wife insists her husband is innocent. "Of course, he wanted to help Girifna in sending their message of peace and justice through nonviolent demonstrations," she says.
Williams Dawod, who lives in Oregon and works at a bank, says a dear friend called her to break the news about her husband's detention.
"I later learned that they took Rudwan to a police station nearby," she says. "They then beat him so bad he was unconscious."
She says armed men took Rudwan Dawod by car to his home, where they arrested his elderly father and his brother, both of whom she maintains are in poor health.
"They ransacked the home. They stole their rent money and valuables — even the earrings out of his sister's ears," says Williams Dawod, adding: "And all this time, Rudwan was in the car unconscious."
She says the authorities accuse Dawod of being a spy, and that such disinformation was widely reported in the Khartoum newspapers.
"They wanted a statement out of him that he was with the FBI or the CIA. And, of course, he refused. They even threatened him that they would rape him," she says.
Williams Dawod was reportedly mentioned in articles as having taught her husband martial arts and how to handle explosives, claims she dismissed as "just ridiculous, unbelievable stories."
She told NPR her husband warned his tormentors: "Do what you want, but remember that I will tell the world, and it won't be my end but it will be your end."
The 'Sudanese Summer'
Dawod and others are facing several charges, including terrorism — which could be punishable by death.
The Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment specifically on his case, but issued a statement saying some opportunists have "capitalized on the protests to inspire chaos or smear Sudan's image."
The statement notes:
"Concerning the sporadic protests witnessed in the country, it is important to note first that Sudan affirms and protects the right of the citizens to demonstrate as they wish, provided that the rules and regulations in place are observed, as they are principally meant to ensure public order and safety.
"Fair observers will note how easily things can get out of hand in such settings if the laws that regulate such an affair are not adhered to, be it Sudan or the United States."
The State Department has condemned the crackdown and the detention of the demonstrators by the Sudanese security forces.
Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch have also weighed in. HRW researcher Jehanne Henry says the Sudanese authorities are trying to discredit the opposition — including Dawod's group, Girifna.
"There are now fears that security forces have gone so far as to hack into the youth activists' Facebook and Skype and phones and, in one incident, to actually call somebody to meet them somewhere and that person was arrested," says Henry.
Tom Prichard, who founded Sudan Sunrise, the nongovernmental organization Dawod has been working with, says he is being singled out.
Dawod's Girifna colleague, U.S. spokesman Ibrahim Babiker, warns that the Sudanese government simply will brook no dissent, and risks making a martyr of Dawod.
Prichard and Babiker both say that intimidating and locking up demonstrators and charging them with terrorism will not dampen the "Sudanese Summer," as it has been dubbed, on the streets of Khartoum, or stop a blossoming uprising against the government.
In Oregon, Dawod's wife, Nancy, says she understands her husband's dedication and commitment to Sudan, but right now she has just one wish: "This has been hard for us, and we take it one day at a time. We just keep praying that he'll be home soon, especially before our little baby girl, Sudan Nyala — I call her Nylie; he calls her Sudan — and I just want Rudwan here when she's born."