(Juba) – South Sudan state authorities have failed to carry out adequate investigations into the killing of eight peaceful protesters in December 2012 by government security forces, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.
On December 9, security forces opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing six people on the spot. Two more protesters died later in a hospital. The protest had been triggered by the killing of two men during an outbreak of violence between youth and security forces the evening before.
“Eight peaceful protesters are dead in South Sudan at the hands of security forces and apparently no one has been charged or prosecuted five months later,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This sets a bad precedent for a new country and undermines freedom of expression and peaceful assembly across South Sudan.”
The December 9 protest and the killing of the two men during an outbreak of violence the evening before took place during civil unrest in Wau, capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal state, over a decision to move a county administrative headquarters outside of the town.
Amnesty International visited Wau, and issued a report on the violence, in February 2013. Human Rights Watch visited Wau in February and in May.
Governor Rizig Zakaria Hassan of Western Bahr el Ghazal state told Human Rights Watch in May that police shot the protesters while defending the nearby South Sudan Bank against “rioters.” However, witnesses told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that protesters marched peacefully past the bank, and this account was corroborated by video footage.
“They started shooting as soon as they saw us,” an 18-year-old man, shot in both legs during the protest, told Human Rights Watch. “All the young men were at the front. I saw three of them fall dead to the ground.”
A doctor who saw the bodies after the protest said that the eight people killed were all shot in the head or in the chest. The identities of the forces responsible for the killings remain unclear.
Authorities should ensure full, effective and impartial investigations leading to the prosecution of those responsible for these killings more than five months ago and for a number of other deaths during the civil unrest in Wau, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
The right to peaceful assembly and association as well as the right of freedom of expression is protected by South Sudan’s transitional constitution. In order to protect every person’s right to life and security of person, international standards require that law enforcement officials must, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means. Firearms may only be used as a last resort – when strictly necessary in self defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and the intentional lethal use of firearms is only permissible when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
Based on accounts provided to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the security forces made no efforts to control or disperse the crowds with nonviolent or less than lethal means before opening fire at the protesters. They gave no warnings of their intention to use firearms, and they made no attempts to prevent or minimize death or injury.
“The security forces have a duty to protect lives and uphold the rule of law. It is therefore completely unacceptable for them to use live ammunition against peaceful protesters,” said Netsanet Belay, Africa director at Amnesty International.
Under international standards, every use of lethal force in law enforcement operations, including those that are allegedly accidental, must be subject to an independent and impartial investigation.
No adequate investigation has been carried out and the identity of the individual officers within the security forces responsible for the killings remains unclear.
The “Wau Crisis”
In October, 2012, Governor Hassan announced that the administrative headquarters of Wau County would be moved from the town to the Baggari area outside of the town. Many in the Fertit community, some of whom said the move would marginalize the Fertit, objected, saying they had not been fully consulted.
Tensions rose significantly between the government and the Fertit community in early December when Fertit youth blockaded key roads into the town in protest. Soldiers and police forcibly ended the blockade on December 8. Youth at the scene told Amnesty International that the security forces opened fire, killing the two youth. The deaths sparked the protest in Wau on December 9, in which the eight young men were killed.
On December 15, the bodies of six farm workers from the Dinka ethnic group were discovered in the nearby Farajallah area, triggering revenge attacks by Dinka youth on Fertit neighborhoods of Wau on December 19 in which at least six people were killed and over 150 houses burned. A Wau crisis court is currently trying 16 people for the Farajallah murders.
According to findings in an Amnesty International report “Civil Unrest and State Repression: Human Rights Violations in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal State”, corroborated by Human Rights Watch research, in the weeks following the deaths on December 8 and 9, the police and officers from the National Security Service (NSS) arrested dozens of people. They included politicians and community members as well as members of the police, prison service, and fire brigade accused of failing to stop the protest or of having acted in support of the protesters or the youth who had blocked the roads. All but one of those arrested were Fertit. The arrests ratcheted up ethnic tensions.
Human Right Watch and Amnesty International documented human rights violations in connection with the arrests. Almost all of those arrested were held without charge for over a month, in many cases in unofficial detention sites including the offices of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department and the NSS before being transferred to Wau Prison and charged in early February. At least seven journalists were also detained, some for more than two weeks, before being released without charge.
Under South Sudanese law, detainees are to be charged or released within 24 hours.
State authorities opened an investigation against several politicians, youth activists, community leaders, and perceived opponents of the state government’s policy to relocate Wau County. In February, national authorities sent three judges to Wau to try those suspected of committing crimes during the violence. It is unclear however, whether the judges’ mandate includes trials for security forces responsible for killing the protesters.
The trials have reportedly been well-received by the public as a first step to administering justice. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were not able to observe the proceedings, but were told by defense lawyers that the accused have been provided with defense counsel. The court has released some of the accused on bail. The court has tried 28 people, with 12 acquittals and 16 convictions. The trials of over 45 other defendants are ongoing. Convictions include possession of an illegal weapon and public violence.
Residents told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the trials have helped ease tension in Wau.
“It is positive that the judges are now hearing many of the cases of those arrested and that defendants have access to lawyers,” Belay said. “Thorough investigations and subsequent prosecution of those involved in the shooting of the protesters, those responsible for the deaths of the two youth the prior evening and the deaths of people killed in the outbreak of violence on December 19 should be urgently carried out.”
Failure to Investigate and Prosecute
On December 11, the governor announced the formation of a nine-member committee to carry out an investigation into the protests. The committee’s report has not been made public, however. Authorities have refused to allow Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to see the report. Members of South Sudan’s national parliament traveled to Wau in December but left when the violence broke out on December 19 before completing their investigations.
During interviews with Human Rights Watch in May, the state governor, chief prosecutor, information minister, police commissioner, and other senior government officials would not say whether there are any ongoing efforts to investigate the December 8, 9, or 19 deaths. The governor told Human Rights Watch that families should themselves file complaints if they want the police to investigate.
Family members of 12 people who were injured or killed on December 8, 9, or 19 and who were interviewed in May said they had not been contacted by any investigators. Family members of one young man shot during the protest told Human Rights Watch that police turned them away twice when they tried to open a private case. Another man said he requested an investigation into the death of his son on December 19 and has asked the police three times about the progress of the investigation but has been told that investigations will be done “later.”
“No investigation has been done,” the wife of one of the men who was killed said. “If we open our mouths that same day I will be put in jail and then my children will suffer more.” Most of the families interviewed said they were too frightened to ask to open cases or complain to the police.
“The government was quick to arrest youth and politicians opposed to the relocation of Wau County headquarters,” Bekele said. “But the unmet need for justice felt by families who lost relatives during the violence in Wau remains an open wound in the community that could lead to more violence.”