(Nairobi) – South Sudan’s parliament should revise the pending National Security Service Amendment Bill to bring an end to the agency’s arbitrary arrests and other abusive practices, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. The organizations published a joint letter to parliament detailing the bill’s problematic provisions as well as several positive provisions.
“An in-depth review and revision of outstanding gaps in the law governing the National Security Service is critical to reining in the notorious agency,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament needs to ensure that the pending law genuinely limits the security service’s powers and strengthens oversight of the agency’s activities.”
The current National Security Service Act of 2014 gives the agency broad and unqualified powers that allow it to commit serious abuses with impunity, creating and sustaining a climate of repression and fear.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International among other rights organizations have documented that the security agency’s broad powers have contributed to shrinking civic space. The agency exerts its authority without meaningful judicial or legislative oversight, agents are rarely punished for abuses, and the government lacks the political will to address these widespread practices, the organizations said. These abuses have left many victims with long-term physical and mental health conditions.
The bill to amend the 2014 law currently before parliament was drafted by the National Constitutional Amendment Committee (NCAC) as part of the reforms initiated by the Revitalized Peace Agreement of 2018. Following lack of consensus by committee members about the agency’s authority to make arrests, the bill was referred to the Justice Ministry in 2019 and then to the presidency in April 2021 for resolution.
In December 2022, the justice minister recommended to the cabinet and presidency that the agency’s authority to arrest and detain suspects should be limited. On February 22, 2023, several media outlets reported that the presidency had agreed to abolish the agency’s authority to arrest and detain people, with or without a warrant. On May 9, media reported that the bill would be presented for its first reading in parliament within two weeks, which has since elapsed.
The bill includes a series of positive provisions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. It introduces guiding principles founded on a respect for human rights and prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and prohibits detention or confinement by security agents. It also gives the justice minister and civilian courts a greater role in prosecuting agency officials accused of crimes. However, the bill still contains vague and broad provisions that would allow the agency to continue to abuse human rights, the organizations said.
While the Bill revokes sections 54 and 55 of the National Security Service Act, which gave the agency the authority to arrest with or without a warrant, it retains its arrest authority “under emergency circumstances,” which could be subject to abuse. It also allows arrests without a warrant in section 57, if the person is suspected of broad “crimes against the state.” During the bill’s review, parliament should remove this power of arrest, the organizations said.
Further, while section 57 gives any magistrate powers to visit any detention site, this section read together with section 13(15), which would allow the agency to arrest people under certain circumstances suggests that the agency can hold people in custody. Parliament should make clear that the agency cannot detain civilians under any circumstances, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
The bill's overly broad definition of “crimes against the state” as “any activity directed at undermining ... the government” and reference to the same crime in the 2008 Penal Code Act, which is equally vague, is problematic. The government has in the past used trumped-up charges of crimes against the state to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, including peaceful exercise of political opposition, or public criticism of state policy and actions.
In the meantime, the South Sudanese government should order the closure of all unauthorized detention sites operated by the security agency and release detainees or hand them over to legitimate law enforcement officials for charge and fair trial. The authorities should also disclose the whereabouts, status, and condition of Morris Mabior Awikjiok, a South Sudanese refugee transferred from Kenya in early March. He is reportedly being held incommunicado at the security agency’s Blue House detention site.
“For the efforts to reform the security service to be impactful, they must be accompanied by measures to hold officers to account for past and ongoing rights abuses,” said Tigere Chagutah, Regional Director at Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office. “Authorities should ensure that security service officials, including senior officials, are held to account.”