EXCLUSIVE: Sudanese-American peace activist Rudwan Dawod spent 45 days in a Khartoum prison, enduring brutal beatings and barely enough food and water to stay alive before a judge ordered him freed.
He's already planning his next trip back to the war-torn region.
“We are building our country, we are building peace,” Dawod told FoxNews.com in an exclusive interview in Washington, D.C., where he stopped on his way home to Oregon, where his wife is expecting the couple's first child. “We are making reconciliation between people, and this is what they’ve always needed, so I cannot stop from going there. I know it’s risky, but they deserve it and I really need to continue. They cannot stop me from going to [South Sudan].”
Dawod — a permanent U.S. resident accused of being an American spy while imprisoned in Khartoum — said the brutal treatment by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) will not deter his mission of rebuilding a Catholic cathedral in South Sudan that has twice been destroyed by Sudanese forces. The 29-year-old native of Darfur was arrested in Khartoum on July 3 while participating in a peaceful protest against the ongoing violence in the region and the Sudanese government’s austerity policies under President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. Prior to his arrest, Dawod had spent a month in South Sudan facilitating resources to rebuild the cathedral that will serve 1,000 worshippers in Torit — and become a symbol of peace between Christians and Muslims in the African nation.
“They started beating me a lot with sticks, kind of like a strong plastic,” Dawod said of his arrest by NISS forces. “First they said, ‘We know you very well and where you come from.’ They told me, ‘We have been looking for you.’”
Dawod, a project director for Sudan Sunrise, a Washington-based organization that promotes peace and the end of oppression in the region, had traveled to Sudan to visit relatives and to renew his passport. He originally had no plans to participate in the protest, which was led by Girifna, a non-violent youth protest movement in the nation whose name means “We’re Fed Up.” He was the first person taken into custody at the rally of 1,000 activists and residents, he said, followed by an Egyptian journalist.
Dawod's imprisonment attracted scant international attention, though FoxNews.com chronicled his plight as his case wound through the unpredictable Sudanese legal system. Even as he appeared in court to profess his innocence, Dawod endured regular beatings and interrogations behind closed doors.
“They were questioning me a lot,” Dawod said, adding that authorities believed he was an American spy. “I knew that they were just trying to charge me and try to punish me. I was just a symbol; they wanted to make the other people afraid.”
While in custody, Dawod said he was beaten daily for a week and was detained with six other men in a cell designed for one person.
"I was in a very small room and there was not anything, just a floor,” he said. “There was no sheet, no blanket or mattress or anything. There [was] not even any light and I was in chains even inside the little room.”
The harsh conditions didn’t break Dawod’s spirit, however. Instead, he felt sorry for his captors.
“I wasn’t really feeling bad at all, even when they were beating me,” he said. “I reached some kind of level … I wasn’t even feeling the pain of their torture or their beatings. I was even telling them I was not their enemy and that I didn’t see them as my enemy. The government was just using them to torture their own brothers.”
Some of the security forces seemed to enjoy Dawod’s suffering, he said.
“But when they gave me an opportunity to speak a little bit,” I convinced a lot of them that they were doing something crazy. If they’re a human being, they’re not supposed to enjoy someone else’s suffering.”
Dawod said he was later accused of belonging to a terrorist group, of being an American spy and of organizing an illegal protest. If convicted on those charges, he could have faced the death penalty.
“I was sure I was innocent, but I knew that if they wanted to do something, they could do it,” he said. “They can fabricate anything, the government of Sudan.”
Those serious charges were ultimately dropped on August 13 by a judge who ordered Dawod to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds — roughly $100 — for allegedly planning to burn tires during the protest in July. But Dawod was immediately re-arrested by NISS forces and taken back into custody after the fine was paid and he was released on time served.
That development prompted U.S. State Department officials, in a statement to FoxNews.com last month, to call on the Sudanese government to release Dawod and honor the judge’s decision. He was later freed on Aug. 16, nearly 50 days after he was originally arrested.
“I never lost hope,” he said. “I knew I would be released soon. Even when they took me again to the prison, they started treated me very well this time. But I knew I wasn’t guilty. They kept me more than 45 days and I did nothing.”
Upon being released, one of Dawod’s first telephone calls was to his wife Nancy, whom he met in 2009 while volunteering with Sudan Sunrise. The couple, who live in Springfield, Ore., are now expecting their first child — a daughter they’ll name Sudan — within weeks.
“It was a very emotional time,” Dawod told FoxNews.com of that phone call. “She was crying, she was happy, and she wanted me to leave soon. She was really worried a lot and believed I was going to be re-arrested again.”
Dawod still had to renew his passport, however, so he stayed with relatives for a few days before returning to the United States on Aug. 29. He sat down with FoxNews.com for his first interview on his detention the following day, saying that despite the terror of facing the death penalty for what was merely an attempt to rebuild a church, he will return.
“What is going on in Sudan is really sad, a lot of people have no idea,” he said. “Where I grew up, it was all about violence. It was all about hating the others. It was all negative, really. We grew up in a war culture.”
Now thousands of miles away from that nonstop violence, Dawod is one step closer to returning to his wife and unborn child. He will speak Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., before returning to Oregon.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he said.