South Sudan President Salva Kiir has ordered the release of all “prisoners of war and detainees” as part of the new peace agreement. This is a welcome move, but Kiir should go a step further and release those held without charge in violation of international law and investigate all allegations of abuse and torture of detainees.
Since the outbreak of South Sudan’s conflict, government security forces, particularly its national security agency, have consistently targeted people seen to oppose the government based on their political opinion and not criminal acts. These include journalists, human rights defenders, and members of political opposition groups. They are often held for long periods – years, in some cases –without access to lawyer or family visits.
Some detainees were subjected to harsh beatings, electrocution, and other forms of torture. “We were all beaten thoroughly,” said one man detained by the National Security Service (NSS) in Juba for almost two years. “I even broke two discs on my backbone. They beat our backs, buttocks, thighs. I could not sit even for some days.”
“I felt I could not breathe. They said if you don’t tell us the truth you will not see the light. They were beating me with their fists and whipping me again and again.” said a civilian man, detained for three days by the army in Wau.
Kiir should order an investigation into these abuses, as well as the enforced disappearance of Dong Samuel Luak, Aggrey Iddri, Anthony Nyero, James Lual and many others. Nelson James Adieng, an airline company staff member, who disappeared after an arrest by the NSS in May 2017 at Juba airport, is just one of many victims of enforced disappearances we documented since the start of the war.
Enforced disappearances – where authorities deny knowledge of a person’s fate or whereabouts after their arrest, detention or other deprivation of liberty – were a feature of the 22-year war with Sudan. The indelible scars they have left on family members and communities linger today. Family members of people who have been unlawfully detained or disappeared deserve more.
If South Sudan’s government wants to turn a new page in the country’s history, it should not only release those unlawfully detained by its security forces but take serious measures to end all arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture, and other abuses and ensure those responsible are held to account.