South Sudan’s National Assembly should urgently enact reforms of the National Security Service (NSS) to end arbitrary detention and abuse of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also ensure that the security agency releases all those arbitrarily detained in Juba, the capital, and elsewhere in the country and hold all those responsible for abuses to account.
“South Sudan’s national security agency has for years carried out a full-blown assault on critics of the government and political opponents in brazen disregard for basic rights,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “With the formation of a unity government, South Sudan’s leaders should now show they are serious about ending these abuses and holding those responsible to account.”
South Sudan’s government and opposition leaders are supposed to form a new unity government on February 22, 2020, in accordance with the terms of the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement. The National Assembly, South Sudan’s parliament, is to consider new legislation to revise structure, policies, and procedures of the security service amongst others in the coming days, before the new government is formed.
Lawmakers should prioritize revising the NSS Act (2015) to prohibit the agency from carrying out arrests and detaining people and ensure adequate and broad-based discussions on the reforms. The authorities should also close all unauthorized detention sites and release or appropriately charge detainees and transfer them to police custody, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the South Sudanese authorities to limit NSS powers to intelligence gathering, as envisioned by the Transitional Constitution of 2011, which mandates the agency to “focus on information gathering, analysis and to advise the relevant authorities.”
Human Rights Watch, the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, and others have documented and reported on the pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, and enforced disappearances by the National Security Service, with little to no accountability for the abuses. NSS detainees are often kept in poor conditions in unauthorized, ungazetted, secret detention facilities and in congested cells with inadequate access to food, water, and medical care.
Prior to the formation of the new government, the NSS has increased repression of critics, eroding the space for opposing views and critical public dialogue.
In early February, NSS officers in Maridi allegedly detained a sports journalist for “spreading wrong information against the state” and beat him with a stick and pipe, credible sources told Human Rights Watch. In January, NSS officers arrested Ijoo Bosco, a journalist working with a local radio station in Torit, reportedly for airing news on United States government sanctions against the first vice president, Taban Deng Gai, for human rights abuses.
In December 2019, NSS officers arrested and detained an assistant lecturer at the University of Western Bar el Ghazal in Wau for reportedly mobilizing rebel fighters against the peace agreement’s security arrangements. He was released in January without charge.
At least 100 people are being held in the main NSS detention facility, known as the Blue House, in Juba. They include both security sector personnel held for disciplinary purposes and civilians held without charge, often for long periods, according to credible sources. One such detainee is Riek Malual Kuei, a trader in his late 30s, arrested by NSS officers in Juba on October 9, 2017. He was arrested because he was reportedly engaged in financial transactions for the armed opposition, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A-IO). Kuei remains detained at NSS headquarters in Juba without charge or trial.
The NSS Act grants the agency broad powers of arrest, detention, search, seizure, and surveillance. It does not include guarantees to prevent arbitrary detention and torture or other ill-treatment, and includes provisions providing NSS offers with immunity to arrest for human rights violations. And while it requires the NSS to bring detainees before a magistrate or judge within 24 hours of their detention, the NSS seldom does.
As part of the revitalized peace deal signed in September 2018 the government agreed to reform the agency, along with other security organs. In January 2019, the constitutional review commission submitted proposed amendments to the NSS Act to the Justice Ministry for deliberations and for presentation before the National Assembly.
The proposed amendments limit, but do not eliminate, the agency’s powers of arrest and detention, and criminalize torture. They retain the agency’s surveillance powers, without sufficient oversight, and permit an overly broad “crimes against the state” as a basis for arrest. The proposed law defines the crime as “any activity directed at undermining … the government” and references the same crime in the 2008 Penal Act, which is equally vague.
South Sudan’s leaders should now revise the law to genuinely limit the role and powers of the NSS. They should order closed all unauthorized places of detention and release detainees or hand them over to legitimate law enforcement officials for charge and trial. South Sudan authorities should also hold those responsible for serious NSS abuses over the years to account, Human Rights Watch said.
“South Sudan’s leaders need to rein in the abusive NSS, an outgrowth of the old, repressive Sudanese system that society has so clearly rejected,” Henry said. “South Sudanese legislators should go beyond the proposed amendments to the security law and bring this agency in line with international standards.”