(Nairobi) – South Sudanese authorities should unconditionally release six airport officials unlawfully detained without trial since November 2018, or else promptly charge them and release them on bail pending trial, Human Rights Watch said today. South Sudan’s government should also ensure that ongoing revisions to the National Security Service Act incorporate basic human rights protections.

The National Security Service arrested the six individuals at various times in November on fraud allegations. They remain detained unlawfully without authorization by any judicial authority. The cases are part of a pattern of unlawful detentions by national security and law enforcement authorities in South Sudan.

“These cases exemplify how South Sudan’s government fails to respect the basic rights of accused people,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan’s authorities need to respect due process protections in national and international law and should immediately release these six airport officials and if they intend to charge them, do so promptly.”

Since the outbreak of conflict in South Sudan in December 2013, the security service has been at the helm of abuses that include arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances. Security agents have targeted perceived dissidents, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Authorities have also failed to respect the basic rights of accused people in the regular jails and prisons. Human Rights Watch has documented weaknesses in the criminal justice system such as arbitrary detentions, including detaining relatives of suspects if the authorities cannot find the suspects; poor conditions in detention; and violations of fair trial rights.

Security agents arrested David Subek Dada, chief executive officer of the South Sudan Civil Aviation Authority and a dual South Sudan-Australian national in his 50s, on November 8 on accusations of fraud. The case relates to a dispute over payment of landing fees by the Kenyan airline, Fly540, which the government says has not paid the required fees. Security officials subsequently summoned and arrested four other staff members of the Civil Aviation Authority – Santino Payo, David Lado Laki, Simon Lokonga, and Jackline Ibrahim – and an employee of the airline Fly540, Mercy Lalam, later in November.

Information from lawyers and documents that Human Rights Watch has studied shows that the NSS concluded an investigation in December based on offenses including cheating, criminal breach of trust, and forgery and then transferred the detainees to the Juba Central Prison on January 12, 2019.

A public prosecutor recommended releasing one of the detainees, Subek Dada, on bail in December due to health concerns. Subek is diabetic and has high blood pressure but has not received adequate medical treatment.

The detainees remain in the prison without any confirmation of legal charges and have yet to be taken before a judge. The lawyers and family members said that the authorities have not provided them with any information about the status of the case or whether the group will face legal charges. The National Security Service, the complainant in the case, claims that it has lost all the files relating to the case.

“There is nobody to speak to about the case,” a family member told Human Rights Watch. “Nobody wants to take responsibility. We try to talk to the Criminal Investigation Department, and they say go to National Security Service. We go to NSS and they say go to the Public Prosecutor. We are very frustrated.”

Under South Sudan’s laws, all detainees – whether arrested by the police or the security services – are accorded basic rights. The constitution provides that the person should be taken before a court within 24 hours of arrest. South Sudan’s criminal laws say pretrial detention should not exceed six months, unless extended by a court order.

The International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which South Sudan is party, allows pretrial detention only as an exception and says that it should be as short as possible and that defendants should be tried without undue delay. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights has emphasized that the African Charter’s prohibition on arbitrary arrest and detention requires, as a minimum, respect for the guarantees in the ICCPR. These limits are often not respected in South Sudan, however.

South Sudan’s National Security Service Act (2015), does not incorporate the necessary guarantees to prevent arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment, and facilitates a culture of impunity for these violations. Security officers are immune from prosecution, effectively denying legal recourse to victims of rights violations.

South Sudan’s” Revitalized” peace deal signed in September 2018 provides for the review of security sector laws including the National Security Service Act by the National Constitutional Amendment Committee. In January, this committee submitted amendments to the NSS Act to the Justice Ministry for deliberations and for presentation before the National Assembly. But the amendments have not been sent to the Assembly.

“South Sudan’s authorities should make the necessary reforms to curb the security agency’s broad powers of arrest, detention, and surveillance and ensure that detainees’ rights are respected,” Henry said. “They should also lift security officers’ immunity from prosecution so that victims of rights abuses will have access to an effective remedy.”