DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) strongly condemns and calls for independent investigations into the recent increase in physical attacks, arbitrary detentions and use of brutal torture against human rights defenders and journalists in South Sudan.
On 8 March, journalist and editor of El Tabeer newspaper Joseph Afendi was found in a graveyard in the capital, Juba, with severe burns and torture marks on his body. He was kidnapped on Friday 4 March by unknown men in a white vehicle with tinted windows and no number plate, only weeks after being released from a previous detention.
According to sources on the ground, at least 5 other journalists and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily detained since January 2016, and most have been subjected to brutal torture and cruel and inhumane treatment during their detention. Over the last two months, there have also been several cases of journalists and human rights defenders who were violently beaten by agents of the National Security Services (NSS) and Military Intelligence, and many more have reported being under surveillance and receiving death threats related to their work covering the devastating civil war and the implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement.
“The growing frequency of these attacks and detentions and the increasing use of torture are indicative of an attempt by the government and its security apparatus to silence critical voices through intimidation and violence.” said Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders. “The United Nations Human Rights Council, which is currently in session, should strongly condemn these attacks and take action to ensure that journalists and civil society are able to safely and effectively report on the conflict and the peace agreement implementation.”
Cases of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and physical attacks against HRDs and journalists have increased since the signing of the peace agreement in August 2015, generally targeting those documenting and reporting on human rights violations committed by government forces, as well as political developments such as President Salva Kiir’s decision to create 28 states in December 2015.
Afendi was previously arrested on 30 December 2015 after writing an article critical of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and was detained by the NSS without access to his lawyer or his family until 19 February. No official charges were brought against him.
In November 2015, 13 civil society activists were arrested and detained for several days in Wau, South Sudan, by order of the Mayor of Wau, although they were not notified of any official charges against them. They were accused of being allies of rebel groups and bringing public dishonour to the state government. The arrests came after 14 civil society organisations collectively submitted a petition informing the authorities of the state of misconduct of NSS personnel in Bagari Jedid and Wau.
In joint letter to members of the UN Human Rights Council, DefendDefenders and 12 other South Sudanese and international human rights organisations called upon the Council to establish a Special Rapporteur on South Sudan with a mandate to investigate and publicly report on violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law and make recommendations for achieving effective accountability for past and on-going crimes.
Last year alone, at least 7 journalists were killed and 5 media outlets shut down, making South Sudan one of the restricted and dangerous environments for civil society and journalists in the sub-region. The Government of South Sudan should immediately cease all intimidation, harassment, and threats against journalists, and should ensure that prompt, independent, and transparent investigations are conducted into cases of arbitrary detentions and torture and killings.
DefendDefenders has been documenting the increasingly dangerous landscape for journalists, and human rights defenders more broadly, since the outbreak of the conflict. The situation in South Sudan has dramatically deteriorated, and become one of the worst human rights and humanitarian crises in the world today. Unprecedented levels of violence have seen indiscriminate killings, rape, sexual violence, abduction, destruction of properties and the recruitments of children.