(Nairobi) – South Sudanese security forces summarily executed at least eight suspected criminals, including two children, as part of their anti-crime campaign in Warrap state, Human Rights watch said today. The executions apparently were carried out on the orders of Governor Aleu Ayieny Aleu. South Sudanese authorities should immediately halt and ensure justice for the unlawful killings, which constitute serious violations of international law.
Warrap state, in northern South Sudan, has perennially experienced violence linked to intercommunal conflict and cattle raiding since the country’s independence in 2011. During 2020, there was an escalation in violence against civilians, including killings, sexual violence, and abductions as political elites manipulated local rivalries. President Salva Kiir appointed Governor Aleu in January with a mandate, among other things, to curb violence and crime.
“If Governor Aleu authorized summary killings instead of legal proceedings against suspected criminals, he is abusing his power and undermining the rule of law,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Kiir should ensure credible and transparent investigations into these serious violations of the right to life, bring those responsible to account and ensure compensation for the victims’ families.”
Between June 4 and June 25, 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed eight witnesses and relatives of victims of state security forces’ violations in Warrap state, as well as seven lawyers, activists, and journalists with knowledge of the killings. Interviews were conducted by telephone and secure messaging applications in English and, using an interpreter, in Thuuk Muonyjang(Dinka/Jieng dialect). Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by the United Nations, community groups, and the local media as well as videos posted on social media platforms.
Credible sources informed Human Rights Watch that, between April and June, on the governor’s orders, security forces executed at least 21 people accused of murder, theft, and other offenses, including in the towns of Kuajok, Romic, Alabek, Twic, Aliek, and Warrap. Human Rights Watch verified eight killings in Kuajok and Nyang Akoch. The UN Mission in South Sudan also documented executions of 29 males in the state, including boys and elderly men.
Government and media sources said that after becoming governor, Aleu toured Warrap state for months, meeting with community members, state and county authorities, and security forces, as part of his security, peace, and reconciliation strategy. He however encouraged violence in some instances. A YouTube video posted on March 10 shows Governor Aleu, in military fatigues, briefing a new army battalion known as the “Tuek Tuek” in Tonj North County briefing them on his security strategy and encouraging violence.
“What will you do when there are thieves and criminals killing people and stealing their property?” he said, addressing the soldiers in Thuuk Muonyjang.“Just like tuek tuek[a woodpecker] cuts into trees, you can do the same to a human and know you will all be promoted...Are you going to fail in your mission?”
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that local authorities in Nyang Akoch village, in Tonj North, detained four people between April 6 and 11. Six witnesses said that the governor visited the village on April 11, along with security forces, arrested a fifth person, and ordered the execution of all five by firing squad. The victims were two boys, ages 14 and 17, andthree men.
“The governor came in the morning with many soldiers, and we saw our children being thrown up in the car with soldiers chasing people away and making noise,” said a family member of one victim. Three witnesses to the executions told the victims’ relatives that their loved ones were shot in a place called Keet. In a move to silence criticism, the governor is pursuing criminal defamation charges against a lawyer originally from the region who spoke about the executions on Voice of America.
On April 26, in Kuajok, the state capital, soldiers executed by firing squad three men accused of murdering a woman and injuring her child. Witnesses, as well as a local official who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that the three had confessed and that community members and traditional chiefs demanded the killings to calm tensions and prevent violence between the communities of the alleged killers and victims.
Governor Aleu, who had opened a local peace conference that day, gave permission for the killings based on the community’s demands, a local official said. Human Rights Watch also reviewed Facebook posts showing that the governor opened the meeting on April 26and hosted a farewell gathering for chiefs there on April 28.
Customary chiefs govern at local levels, including with customary courts, acting as intermediaries between the national government and communities. Chiefs have the authority to make arrests but must hand suspects over to the police “without unnecessary delay,” and national law enforcement generally carry out the chiefs’ and their courts’ decisions on petty criminal and civil matters.
However, customary chiefs have no legal authority over murder cases and the proceedings and judgments from customary courts routinely contradict human rights principles. By allowing customary authorities to sanction killings, the state authorities are violating domestic criminal laws and international human rights law, ranging from the rights to a fair trial and due process, to their right to life.
On July 19 Human Rights Watch shared a written summary of research findings with Governor Aleu and requested government response. The government did not respond.
In July 2020 President Kiir warned newly appointed governors that he would fire them if they did not address violence in their states. Kiir has since dismissed the governor of Lakes state and the chief administrator for Ruweng administrative area. Human Rights Watch believes this pressure may have contributed to Warrap authorities’ heavy-handed methods.
Government and UN sources said that the limited capacity of the state police and judiciary contributes to the Warrap governor’s hard line and abusive approach. The government sources noted that the local police are poorly resourced and frequently outgunned by armed civilians.
Kiir should mandate that anti-crime campaigns respect human rights and publicly announce that human rights violators will be held accountable. South Sudanese authorities, with international assistance and cooperation as necessary, should develop the police and judiciary’s ability to deal effectively with intercommunal violence, other crimes, and their punishment.
“These killings have occurred within a context of systemic abuses –committed with impunity –by security forces,” Pur said. “President Kiir needs to end these abuses and give South Sudanese reason to believe that, after 10 years of independence, they will finally live by the rule of law.”
For further details about the executions, please see below.
Violence in Warrap State
Warrap state is home to various ethnicities: the Dinka (or Jieng), the country’s largest ethnic group; the Jurchol and Jur Manager groups of the Luo; and the Bongo. Its six counties are Gogrial East, Gogrial West, Tonj East, Tonj North, Tonj South, and Twic.
The country’s civil war, from 2013 to 2018, did not significantly affect Warrap state but had an impact on the dynamics of local violence and the militarization of communities. After the civil war began, many soldiers defected to armed opposition groups. Consequently, the army and National Security Service (NSS) forcibly and voluntarily recruited Dinka youth and children from Warrap, Lakes, Northern Bar El Ghazal, and Western Bar El Ghazal states to bolster their numbers from groups deemed loyal to the government. This militia of mostly untrained youth and cattle keepers was responsible for heinous wartime abuses. Even after the peace deal of 2018, the government continued to recruit youth and children, particularly from Warrap state. Government forces are also accused of responsibility for abductions, torture, and arbitrary detentions during 2020.
The security situation deteriorated when a governance vacuum emerged after President Kiir dissolved the whole government in February 2020 and did not appoint new state governors until July. Violence surged in Warrap and other states, leading to killings and displacement.
Military and political leaders from Warrap state fueled the animosity and violence between Dinka groups and clans, including by supplying opposing factions with personnel and weapons. The traditional violence often over cattle raiding or land, water, and border disputes or revenge killings; and enhanced by the presence and uncontrolled use of small arms and light weapons, turned into militarized violence sponsored by elites.
Between April and December 2020, in Tonj North, the fighting between Dinka sections killed hundreds of people, burned homes, and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. In June and July, President Kiir appointed two committees to address the violence in Tonj North, but these efforts failed. By December, Tonj East, Tonj North, and Tonj South (Greater Tonj) began facing catastrophic food insecurity, fueling further violence.
As documented by local media, the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan, and the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan the government’s disarmament campaign in Warrap in 2020 was characterized by violence and human rights violations and became another source of violence. In Romich town, Tonj East, at least 127 people were killed during clashes between army and NSS disarmament forces and armed youth on August 8 and 9, 2020.
On June 25, 2021, Vice President Wanni Igga announced that 40,000 newly trained soldiers would be deployed to disarm civilians. Two local officials also told Human Rights Watch that Governor Aleu and his counterparts in Lakes and Northern Bar El Ghazal would roll out disarmament campaigns in the following months.
President Kiir replaced Bona Palek Biar, who had been governor of Warrap for just under seven months, with Aleu on January 28, 2021. The self-described “right-hand man of the president” received a strict mandate to end the violence and threatened to immediately and severely punish those responsible for intercommunal violence and cattle rustling.
Just days after Aleu’s appointment, between January 31 and February 2, community leaders, intellectuals and chiefs from Greater Tonj held a peace conference in Juba, which the new governor and other state officials attended. At the conference, community representatives signed a declaration, seen by Human Rights Watch, that among other things, recommended “imposing death penalty through a fire squad” on criminals.
International human rights standards support abolition of the death penalty as a form of punishment, and while international law permits the penalty of death in very limited circumstances, it may only be applied to the most serious crimes and following absolute strict due process. South Sudan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and is limited by art. 6(2) as to when, if ever, it can legitimately impose the death penalty. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty as a uniquely cruel and irreversible punishment in all circumstances.
While much of the violence has subsided since Aleu’s appointment, sporadic attacks and counterattacks between communities continue. On July 8 and 9 for instance, more than 5,000 people were displaced, shelters burned, schools, churches, and health centers vandalized, and a World Food Program warehouse looted following violence between armed youth from opposing Dinka sections in Marial Lou, Tonj North.
Extrajudicial Executions, Other Rights Violations
Human Rights Watch independently verified eight killings: three in Kuajok and five in Nyang Akoch, Majok payam(the administrative division below counties), Tonj North.
Torture, Ill Treatment, Extrajudicial Execution of 3 Men, 2 Boys in Nyang Akoch Village
On April 3, armed youth shot at a vehicle traveling on the Wau-Tonj Road in Majok payam, Tonj North, killing one passenger. They also injured another on the arm with a spear. Payam authorities detained four suspects between April 6 and their execution on April 11: Achuil Kuol Bol, a 17-year-old cattle keeper; Madut Akol Agok, a cattle keeper in his 30s; Deng Bol Kuot, a 27-year-old health and nutrition volunteer at a local organization; and Majok Deng Mabior, a 14-year-old student.
The detentions were not judicially authorized, the detainees were not held in a lawful detention center, and judicial authorities did not investigate the allegations. Community members and witnesses said that the detainees were kept in a thatched grass house, which served as a prison, under the orders of the executive chief of Majok payam and that the authorities tortured and ill-treated them, including with corporal punishment and prolonged chaining.
International and African human rights law, as well as South Sudanese law, prohibit in all circumstances and at all times cruel and degrading punishment or disciplinary measures, and any inhumane treatment of detainees. Under South Sudanese law, no child under 16 may be sentenced to prison and no one under 18 may be subjected to corporal punishment or group punishment by chiefs or anyone in any place or institution, or be sentenced to death.
Payam authorities arrested Mabior, 14, a student at Majok Primary School, on April 6 and detained him at the payam headquarters until April 11. A relative who had visited him said they needed to bribe the authorities to give Mabior food and water.
Bol’s family members said that payam authorities had initially arrested his 87-year-old father as a proxy when they could not find the 17-year-old boy. When Bol presented himself to the authorities on April 7, he was detained.
Payam authorities arrested Kuot at his home on April 7.
On April 8, authorities sent Agok’s cousin to fetch him for allegedly participating in the April 3 shooting. Agok was allowed to go home that day, but he reported to the administrators’ office on April 9 and was detained. One witness said that officers tied him to a tree and severely beat him.
On April 11, Governor Aleu, accompanied by state officials and about 90 security officers, arrived in Nyang Akoch from Pagol. Six witnesses who attended the welcome ceremony said that the governor asked for the detainees.
One witness said he saw and overheard the governor speak to two chiefs in a small office and say, “I want the prisoners,” before taking the prisoners from the tukulto the payam headquarters.
“What I saw was a large army that came and tied the suspects’ eyes and hands and threw them on the pickup car,” said another witness. “And soldiers sat on them as they drove away … with two chiefs.”
Another witness confirmed that the five suspects were blindfolded and tied. He said their eyes were covered by pieces of one victims’ ripped t-shirt and their hands were tied behind their backs.
That same day, the governor’s security officers arrested Lueeth Chol Daam, a 76-year-old spiritual leader, purportedly for instigating youth to commit violence. One witness said:
“He was found [by soldiers] in his house, in an area that was deserted. His family and others had fled the area during the last violence in March, and he was left behind. When there is fighting, people do not kill elders and women. So, he did not run.”
Family members and witnesses said a firing squad executed these three men and two boys on April 11 at about 6 p.m. in Keet, Majok payam. Two chiefs from the community that lost the passenger on the April 3 shooting attended the execution. One witness hid nearby and saw approximately 15 soldiers make the five men and boys lie face down next to each other, then shot them dead.
A credible source said that the next day, the relatives of Bol, Kuot, and Mabior collected and buried their bodies at their homes. Family members of Agok and Daamcould not be located, so community members buried them near the site of the shooting.
A local chief in Nyang Akoch said that the killings created an atmosphere of fear:
“We had policies that kept the law in place, but now the law has been taken into personal hands. Now, people are living in fear and when they see a lot of cars, some people run for safety because they think they will be killed."
Extrajudicial Execution of 3 Men in Kuajok Town
On April 26, 33 local chiefs from Greater Tonj, Gogrial, and Twic counties gathered at a peace conference in Kuajok and sanctioned the execution of three men accused of killing Adut Agool Makech on April 14, when she was in her car with her four children. One of the children was injured by gunfire.
A local official who attended the peace conference explained why the community had wanted the Makech’s killers executed:
“The three men confessed. Elders and representatives from the clan said this is what they have agreed, and they signed a document to sanction it. [They agreed] that the persons must be killed to stop the communities from fighting."
On April 26 a firing squad of soldiers shot and killed the three men near a river, apparently on the governors’ orders.
Arbitrary Arrest, Detention of Lawyer
Early on June 24 a joint force of 22 soldiers and police arrested Achuil Malei, a lawyer and a former Minister in Defunct Tonj State, at his home in the Gudele neighborhood of Juba and accompanied him as he drove to northern police division headquarters in Juba with a colleague. Voice of America’s South Sudan in Focus radio program had interviewed Malei, who is originally from Tonj North on April 14 about the extrajudicial executions in Nyang Akoch.
A June 11 arrest warrant issued by Governor Aleu’s legal adviser, seen by Human Rights Watch, charged Malei with defamation under section 289 of the Penal Code Act. The warrant required Juba police to hand him over to criminal investigators in Kuajok.
Following a petition from Malei’s lawyer, the national justice and constitutional affairs minister issued a directive on June 25 against Malei’s transfer to Kuajok, and ordered on July 14 that the case be heard in Juba. Although Malei has been released on bail, he is required by police to report to the station every morning and evening.
Impunity is pervasive in South Sudan due to the government’s underinvestment in, and a lack of independence of, the judicial system. Even in the rare instances when judicial authorities have acted in the interest of justice, the executive branch and security forces have frustrated their efforts.
For example, on August 19, 2020, the Warrap state prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Victor Atem Atem, the former governor of the now-defunct Gogrial state, Mayar Deng, and Achuk Yai accusing the three of joint criminal acts of murder and robbery. Family members of 35 men accused of involvement in intercommunal killings and crimes related to cattle raiding during the state of emergency in the state in 2017 said the former governor ordered the extrajudicial executions of the 35 men. According to lawyers familiar with the case, none of the suspects have been arrested.
Local lawyers and one diplomat interviewed by Human Rights Watch believe that the recent extrajudicial killings under governor Aleu not only reflect the general impunity by public officials but of attempts to control communities through forced recruitment and disarmament campaigns.
Poor judicial infrastructure has also contributed to violence in Warrap state. The vast majority of those interviewed attributed the cycles of intercommunal killings and extrajudicial killings to communities’ desire to see justice done in an under resourced system. “When the system broke down, people try to do whatever they think –whether legal or not –to address the violence and crime in the state,” one lawyer said.
The lawyer worried that impunity for the extrajudicial killings would lead to revenge killings:
“Families of victims do not consider their people were killed by law. So, this is murder, and they will take justice into their own hands. There is no difference between what the governor and the soldiers are doing and the killings by unknown gunmen or criminals.”
To address existing judicial challenges in Warrap state, the chief justice and state authorities proposed two courts. One is a special mobile court, combining both formal and traditional judges, to handle violence linked to cattle migration in Warrap and Western Bahr El Ghazal states. The court is to adjudicate serious crimes like murder, sexual violence, property damage, and looting.
The other special court, according to a UN source, is to address similar crimes committed in Greater Tonj. A high court judge has already been deployed to Kuajok for this.
Neither court could fully address the systemic weaknesses in the justice sector, however, including its limited budget, lack of independence, and lack of capacity, Human Rights Watch said.
To President Kiir:
· Initiate prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into alleged extrajudicial executions in Warrap state; ensure that findings are made publicly available in a timely manner; and ensure that those responsible are tried in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards.
· Direct the Warrap state governor and state judicial authorities to provide victims’ family members with reparations and remedies, including monetary compensation.
· Direct the Warrap state governor to develop and adopt a human rights-respecting strategy to address violent conflict, in consultation with relevant national ministers. Such a strategy should address root causes of conflict; hold accountable local and national actors who instigate and take part in the violence; and ensure that government and military efforts to protect civilians are lawful and strictly adhere to the rule of law and due process.
· Ensure that the finance minister and national parliament allocate an adequate budget to support reforms and strengthen the capacity of the judiciary and police, including at the state level.
· Order all security forces and administrative officials to respect and protect human rights, including the rights to liberty, due process including the presumption of innocence, a fair trial, and rights to life and freedom from torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
· Instruct the Warrap state governor and security forces to implement planned disarmament campaigns in a rights-respecting manner, in consultation with and the participation of communities and their traditional authorities.
· Urge parliament to amend the Judiciary Act and the Local Government Act to:
o Ensure adequate monitoring and supervision of customary courts by the formal judiciary.
o Clarify and limit jurisdiction of customary courts over criminal matters.
o Establish clear maximum limits on sentences by customary courts.
To Warrap State Government:
· Conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into alleged crimes during localized conflicts and hold those responsible accountable, including members of armed youth groups.
· Ensure that all arrests and detentions have been authorized by the formal judiciary and that due process rights of suspects are upheld.
· Finalize the establishment of local administrative and legislative structures in Warrap, to roll out rule of law institutions and lead local reconciliation and peace initiatives.