Kampala, 1 December 2015
– Over the last 4 days, 13 civil society members have been arrested in Wau, South Sudan. The order of arrest was issued by the Mayor and the Governor of Wau, although no official charges have been brought against the activists. They have been accused of being allies of rebel groups and bringing public dishonour to the state government. The 13 activists were arrested by the South Sudanese Nation Security Services, and are being held at the their offices in Wau. It has been reported that at least 3 of them have already been subjected to some forms of ill treatment or torture.
“This latest series of arrests demonstrates the Government of South Sudan’s absolute refusal to acknowledge the grave human rights abuses taking place across the country”, said the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) and the South Sudan-based Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO). “The harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and assassinations of journalists and human rights defenders who attempt to bring light to abuses perpetrated by the National Security Services should cease immediately, and their concerns for the safety of the population be heeded.”
Ten activists have been granted access by their family members, who were told they should bring sleeping items for the detained. This indicates the intention of the security forces to keep them under detention, despite the fact that there are no official charges against them.
The arrests have come after 14 civil society organisations based in Wau collectively submitted a petition on 24 November 2015, informing the authorities of the state of misconduct of Security Services personnel in Bagari Jedid and Wau. The petition requested the authorities to take action to remedy the situation. There has been an increase in beatings, harassment, lootings and shootings targeting civilians and perpetrated by national security personnel as the civil war in South Sudan continues. These systematic abuses have been widely documented in the African Union Commission of Inquiry reported, published in October 2015.
On 27 November 2015, the Mayor of Wau, Hon Elia Kamilo Dimo, issued an invitation to these 14 organisations to attend a meeting and discuss the issues raised in the petition. The meeting took place on 28 November at the Council of Minister’s Office. In the following 48 hours, 13 individuals from these same organisations were arrested. Since the arrests, national security personnel have been seen visiting offices of independent civil society organisations.
The much-delayed publication of the African Union Commission of Inquiry’s report revealed the scale and gravity of the crimes committed during the conflict. It found that civilians in South Sudan have been left at the mercy of the warring parties, and have been targets of murder, torture, cruel, inhumane and other degrading treatment, rape and other sexual and gender-based crimes, forced conscription of children, incitement to violence, looting and destruction of property. These widespread and systematic abuses have taken place across the country and are being painstakingly documented and denounced by South Sudanese human rights defenders at very high risk.
The international community has a responsibility to protect these activists from persecution, and should unequivocally condemn the arrests.
These arrests come mere days after a resolution entitled “Recognising the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection,” was put to a vote for the first time in 16 years and adopted at the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution, which South Sudan voted in favour of, calls for accountability for attacks on human rights defenders (including attacks on their family members) and urges states to release defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. South Sudan must adhere to its commitment and immediately release the 13 HRDs that have been detained in Wau.