Human Rights Watch calls for probe as South Sudan soldiers kill unarmed civilians in land dispute

South Sudanese security forces killed at least five people in Juba on June 3, 2020, during a violent confrontation over a land dispute and subsequent peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

According to the rights group, the South Sudanese authorities should investigate thoroughly and promptly hold those responsible to account in a transparent civilian process.

“Government security forces are supposed to protect civilians, not kill them,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should ensure that all the officers involved in these unlawful and unjustified killings are brought to justice, through prompt, effective investigations and prosecutions.”

Early in the morning of June 3, a violent dispute broke out in a public bus park in the Sherikat neighborhood of Juba between local residents and armed military officers led by Lieutenant Lual Akook Wol Kiir, a relative of President Salva Kiir. The dispute was over a public toilet allegedly built on private land. Media and witnesses reported that Lt. Lual and 6 of his officers, armed with pistols and AK-47s, opened fire randomly, killing 2 men and 1 woman on the spot, and injuring at least 7 others. A fourth resident, injured by a gunshot, died on the way to a hospital.

Lt. Lual died in a hospital from a head injury he received during the violence.

In response to the killings, approximately 1,000 civilians gathered in the Sherikat Market later that morning, at 9:30 a.m., and marched to the Rajaf Police Post.

Witnesses who participated in the protests told Human Rights Watch that as the protesters approached the police post, a group of armed police and military officers shot live ammunition into the air and at the marchers, killing one man, Deng Thon Deng, and injuring several others. The security forces arrested at least three protesters, witnesses said.

Peaceful protests also took place in the town of Bor, where the Sherikat residents who were killed that morning were from. National security service and military intelligence arrested two protesters, witnesses said.

Human Rights Watch quoted a witness to the violence in Sherikat as saying that he saw the body of Adau Chol Malual, a tea seller in her early 30s, with a bullet wound in her back, and of Magot Arok Maketh, a man in his late 60s, with a bullet wound in his stomach. The other two victims were a Ugandan national, who died on the spot, and Jok Thongbor Jok, who died on the way to a hospital.

The army spokesperson, Lul Ruai Kong, said that the six officers implicated in shooting civilians in Sherikat are being held in the giyada military barracks in Juba. Fourteen other people detained in connection with the violence are in police custody, said Daniel Justin, the national police service spokesperson. Both said that armed security units were dispatched to control the crowd later that morning but denied that they shot at protesters.

Three other witnesses who participated in the protest were quoted by HRW as saying that the security forces opened fire on them without warning, and with no prior efforts to control or disperse the crowds with nonviolent or less-than-lethal means.

“They did not even read our appeal or even ask us what we wanted,” said a 32-year-old protester. “They started firing even when we did not reach where they are. They started shooting, saying that they want to disperse us. All the bullets were live bullets.”

Human Rights Watch said it reviewed three videos posted on YouTube on June 3 that show protesters running away from gunfire. One man was shot, and people in the crowd carried him to a nearby building. 

In Bor, 200 kilometers north of Juba, at least 100 youth gathered in a public market that afternoon and marched to the town police station. Some rode on boda bodas (motorbikes) while others walked, carrying placards and shouting slogans with “Kiir must go” and “justice for our people in Juba.”

Witnesses said security forces shot in the air to disperse the crowd and arrested two people, including Chol Mawell Jok, a journalist who was documenting the protest and identified himself as a member of the media to security officers. They also arrested a youth leader who helped organize the protests. Security forces detained the two in a container in the National Security Service compound in Bor but a group of youth broke them out later, fearing they would be tortured and forcibly disappeared. 

Bol Deng Bol, a Bor resident who participated in the protests, said the killings in Sherikat were just the latest example of serious violations by the security forces, which go unaddressed. “It has happened many times that security forces kill citizens and there is no justice,” he said. “Often they say it is unknown gunmen. We are fed up. It should not look like we are begging for the government to protect us, it is their primary role to do so.”

The right to life, as well as rights to peaceful assembly, association, and freedom of expression, are fundamental human rights, guaranteed under South Sudan’s constitution as well as international human rights treaties to which South Sudan is bound, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

International human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and to the legitimate objective to be achieved. Every use of lethal force in law enforcement operations, including those that are allegedly accidental, must be subject to an effective, independent, and impartial investigation.

South Sudanese authorities have in the past shown intolerance to protests and failed to hold anyone responsible for unlawful killings and other harm resulting from use of excessive and lethal force against peaceful protestors.

On June 4, President Kiir established an Investigation Committee led by the justice minister and consisting of the heads of the army, police, military intelligence, National Security Service, the director for public prosecutions, and one civilian. They are mandated to investigate the killings in Sherikat during the initial confrontation over land and to issue their findings to the president within seven days.

Past government-led investigative committees formed to probe abuses by security officers have failed to carry out effective investigations and have not led to criminal proceedings or accountability, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities should ensure that the investigation is effective and capable of establishing the facts surrounding the land dispute, including abuse of public office as well as security forces’ unlawful use of force against the protesters in Juba and Bor, and identifying those responsible for any crimes, for the purposes of prosecuting and punishing them. It should make its findings public in a timely manner. The victims or their families should have access to the investigation and to an effective remedy. The accused should also be guaranteed the right to a fair trial.

“South Sudanese authorities should not repeat mistakes of the past but set new standards of accountability and respect for fundamental rights,” Pur said. “This begins by taking the required, meaningful steps to provide effective remedies, including criminal accountability, for the recent violations of rights.” 

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