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(Nairobi, January 31, 2013) – South Sudan should urgently step up efforts to protect freedom of speech and assembly, Human Rights watch said today in releasing its World Report 2013. The government should investigate and prosecute attacks on protesters, activists, and journalists and pass laws protecting free expression.

The murder of the well-known political commentator Isaiah Ding Abraham Chan Awuol in Juba on December 5, 2012, and the killing of at least nine protesters in Wau on December 8 and 9 by security forces added to a growing number of attacks on those who criticize the government.

“The year ended with two tragic incidents in which South Sudanese lost their lives for expressing their opinions,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan needs to show clearly it does not tolerate repression of basic freedoms.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an assessment of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes.

Unidentified gunmen killed Abraham outside his home in Gudele, Juba on the morning of December 5. Abraham’s writings, which often expressed views critical of the government, led to a number of threats against him, media reported, including anonymous telephone calls and text messages to stop writing. Government officials quickly condemned the killing, and opened an investigation. In early January 2013, authorities announced that several suspects were in custody, but no charges have yet been announced.

While the government appears committed to ensuring accountability for this crime, authorities have made little progress investigating other crimes against those who speak out critically, Human Rights Watch said. South Sudanese civil society groups have reported receiving threats about their work. In August, a human rights activist with the Civil Society Alliance was abducted and badly beaten by unidentified armed men after he spoke out publicly against government corruption. Authorities have made no arrests in that case.

Security forces have also restricted freedom of expression by harassing, arresting, and detaining journalists without a legal basis on several occasions in 2012. In December, for example, some of those arrested in the aftermath of the violence were journalists, civil society groups told Human Rights Watch.

Authorities should charge detainees with a crime or release them within 24 hours, as required under South Sudanese criminal procedure. 

In the unlawful killing of protesters in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal state, government security forces opened fire, killing at least nine and wounding many others on December 8 and 9. Video obtained byAl Jazeeratelevision showed security forces firing on apparently unarmed peaceful protestors in Wau on December 9.

The protesters were demonstrating against plans to move the county headquarters from Wau to another location. The crackdown on the initial protests fuelled additional violence between ethnic groups and additional protests, resulting in dozens more deaths, injuries, and damage to property in December. South Sudan’s national assembly and the United Nations have announced they are carrying out investigations.

South Sudan authorities should immediately and impartially investigate the killings and other crimes and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, they should ensure that security forces involved in controlling protests are trained in the rights of protesters and the limits on the use of force. Under international norms and South Sudanese law, lethal force is permitted only as a last resort and where necessary for self-defense or defense of others.

South Sudan has yet to enact a media law. In the absence of laws establishing a legal mechanism to guarantee media freedom and to enable the media to defend their reporting, editors and reporters say they are especially vulnerable to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and censorship by security forces.

In June, for example, National Security Service officials summoned editors and journalists from five newspapers in Juba and instructed them not to report on corruption or mention a letter the president sent to 75 government officials in May asking them to return stolen funds. Journalists told Human Rights Watch that they have also been threatened by security officials for reporting criticisms of the army’s engagement with Sudanese forces at Heglig in April, and of the government’s signing of a cooperation agreement with Sudan in September.

South Sudan also has yet to ratify key human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which would also reinforce free speech and other basic freedoms.

“South Sudan should reverse this worrying trend toward repression of speech and assembly freedoms,” Bekele said. “It should start by thoroughly investigating and prosecuting all crimes against and abuses of those who speak out against the government, including journalists, and by passing relevant laws in line with international standards.”

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