Nairobi — Delays in peace talks originally scheduled for April 26, 2018, should not excuse ongoing detentions and inaction on enforced disappearances, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. South Sudan's leaders should act immediately to impartially investigate the enforced disappearances of two men, and release or charge everyone in their custody who has been arbitrarily detained, the human rights organizations said.
"South Sudanese leaders should demonstrate their commitment to basic human rights and take concrete action on enforced disappearances and unlawful detention," said Jehanne Henry, a team leader in Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "They should investigate the shocking forced disappearance of two prominent men and make good on their pledges to release wrongfully held political detainees."
Dong Samuel Luak, one of the forcibly disappeared men, is a human rights lawyer and outspoken critic of the government who had refugee status in Kenya. Aggrey Idri is a member of the political opposition loyal to Riek Machar, the former vice president and head of the opposition. Idri was also a vocal critic of the government. The two men were abducted from the streets of Nairobi, Kenya on January 23 and 24, 2017, respectively.
On January 27, 2017, a Kenyan court ruled against their deportation to South Sudan. However, credible sources told both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that they had seen Luak and Idri in National Security Service (NSS) detention in Juba on January 25 and 26. The men were then removed from the facility on January 27 to an unknown location. Their abduction is widely viewed as the result of collusion between South Sudan and Kenya, but both governments have denied having custody of the men, or knowledge of their whereabouts.
South Sudanese leaders agreed to release "any person who has been deprived of his or her liberty for reasons related to the conflict" as part of a December 21, 2017 Cessation of Hostilities agreement signed by parties to the conflict. While the government had released around 30 people it called "political detainees" in August 2017, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe that many more remain in detention without charge, most of them accused of communicating with, or mobilizing people on behalf of the opposition.
The disappearances of Dong Luak and Aggrey Idri are part of a larger pattern by the South Sudan government to silence its critics by harassing, intimidating, arbitrarily detaining, and forcibly disappearing them, the two organisations said. Both organizations have continuously documented how government agents arbitrarily arrest and detain perceived opponents in official and unofficial national security and military detention facilities across the country. In many cases, people are held for long periods without charge or access to family or lawyers, and have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.
These abuses have reached across South Sudan's borders. South Sudanese human rights activists and opposition members living in Uganda and Kenya have reported intimidation and threats, allegedly from South Sudan's government agents. In November 2016, Kenyan authorities unlawfully deported the former opposition spokesperson, James Gatdet, from Nairobi to South Sudan, despite the fact that he had refugee status. He was held in NSS detention in Juba without charge for almost a year, and was then charged with treason and other offenses in August 2017. A court sentenced him to death by hanging in February 2018, in violation of human rights norms. His sentencing occurred despite credible information that the court proceedings for James Gatdet likely did not meet international standards for a fair trial.
"South Sudanese authorities continue to show their total disregard for human life and dignity by appearing to condone or turn a blind eye to unlawful detentions and enforced disappearances," said Seif Magango, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes. "They must take concrete steps to promptly, effectively and impartially investigate the disappearances of Dong Luak and Aggrey Idri, and charge, or release all remaining political detainees in line with South Sudan's domestic and international legal obligations."