Skip to main content

South Sudan: ‘Disappeared’ Critic Resurfaces

Spate of Forced Disappearances Points Up Need to Reform Security Agency

Morris Mabior Awikjok Bak © 2022 Morris Mabior Awikjok Bak/Facebook

(Nairobi) – The reappearance in a South Sudan court of a former refugee who had been forcibly disappeared more than a year ago points up the urgent need to reform the National Security Service (NSS), Human Rights Watch said today. South Sudan authorities should urgently put an end to the agency’s arbitrary arrests and detentions of critics, activists and members of civil society, some of which constitute enforced disappearances, a sign of troubling regression in the country’s human rights landscape.

Human Rights Watch has documented three other cases of enforced disappearance in recent months. Security agents arbitrarily detained two people, including a former Juba City Council leader, without warrants and have since then denied any information about their whereabouts. The agency is also implicated in the disappearance of a youth activist at a checkpoint, which authorities have failed to effectively investigate.

“South Sudan’s security service has for years committed flagrant violations of national and international law without consequence,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The egregious violations of people’s rights by the security service underscore the need for urgent and meaningful reform of the agency.”

The 2014 National Security Service Act gives the agency broad and unqualified powers that enable it to commit serious abuses with impunity. Human Rights Watch has documented that the NSS’ exercise of these broad powers has contributed to shrinking the space for civil society, including human rights defenders and independent media. The agency exerts its authority without meaningful judicial or legislative oversight, and its agents are rarely punished for abuses, leaving victims with little recourse for justice.

On April 24, 2024, the NSS brought Morris Mabior Awikjok Bak, a South Sudanese critic and former refugee in Kenya, before a county court in Juba to face charges of criminal defamation against the director of the agency. Bak had been forcibly disappeared on February 4, 2023, in Nairobi, Kenya, returned to South Sudan, and detained by the NSS, although it refused to acknowledge his detention or disclose his location.

The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan had reported on Bak’s detention, allegedly by armed Kenyan security forces and a South Sudanese man in civilian dress, his forced return via a charter flight, and his incommunicado – and unacknowledged – detention by the NSS. In April, the agency acknowledged that it was holding him and indicated that it was bringing criminal defamation charges against him, underscoring the untethered abuse of power by the NSS that South Sudan’s government tolerates.

At about 10 p.m. on March 28, security agents took Kalisto Lado, the former head of the Juba City Council, from his home in Juba and bundled him into a pickup truck with at least 10 armed officers, a witness told Human Rights Watch. Other sources reported that Lado had been under physical surveillance due to his outspokenness against irregular land acquisitions in Juba by powerful individuals that is dispossessing the Bari community and had received a warning that the security agency was looking for him. Witnesses believe that he is being held at the NSS headquarters, Blue House, in Juba. The authorities should immediately release him or bring him before a court and charge him with a recognizable offense if there is sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing. On April 19, media reported that Lado’s family has brought a case against the government at the East African Court of Justice challenging his illegal detention. The government has 45 days to respond to the complaint.

In late March, the NSS summoned Michael Wetnhialic, a political activist, to the Blue House and detained him, a relative told Human Rights Watch. The authorities have yet to acknowledge his detention or disclose his situation or whereabouts. This is the fourth time the agency has unlawfully detained Wetnhialic. The first was in January 2017 when he was detained in the Blue House for approximately four months, then in September 2018 for a month, and in May 2019 for nearly five months, all for allegedly using Facebook to criticize the agency and senior government officials. During each of his detentions, Wetnhialic was held under poor conditions and denied access to family or a lawyer but was never formally charged.

Credible sources recently told Human Rights Watch that Biar Ajak Marol, a youth activist who headed a local organization called Junubin Chronicles, a nongovernmental group that carries out campaigns on social issues through music, was detained on October 4, 2023, at a checkpoint staffed by joint forces including police, military intelligence, and the NSS. The sources said that Biar was initially held at the Riverside detention facility, then transferred to the Blue House, where he is apparently still being held. Human Rights Watch could not independently verify this.

Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that police and military intelligence authorities engaged in a witch-hunt and harassed seven of Biar’s colleagues and friends, accusing them of being involved in his disappearance, arresting and detaining them multiple times, and beating some of them, rather than conducting an effective investigation into his alleged enforced disappearance. The seven were released on the instruction of the public prosecution at various times due to a lack of evidence, witnesses said.

The NSS also twice prevented Biar’s colleagues from holding a news conference about his disappearance, even though they have no legal authority to decide who can hold a public event. It is still unclear where Biar is or why he was detained, and the authorities seem to have ended their investigations.

The deprivation of a person’s liberty by state actors followed by a refusal to acknowledge the act or the whereabouts or fate of the detainee constitutes an enforced disappearance under international law, which is always prohibited and in certain circumstances may constitute a crime against humanity. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the government of South Sudan to credibly investigate all cases of enforced disappearances and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

The authorities have yet to investigate or prosecute anyone for other enforced disappearances the NSS is implicated in. These include the 2017 kidnapping from Kenya and apparent extrajudicial execution in South Sudan of Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the political opposition, as well as the enforced disappearances of two United Nations staff, James Lual and Anthony Nyero, and an airline employee, James Adieng.

Amendments to the 2014 act introduced to parliament by the justice minister in May 2023 stalled in September after parliament members removed all references to NSS operating detention centers, introduced a new safeguard requiring the agency to obtain a court warrant before any search and seizure, and a new section requiring parliamentary approval for any other functions assigned to the agency by the president or national security council.

“Members of South Sudan’s parliament should set aside party political considerations and act to protect human rights and the rule of law in the interest of all South Sudanese,” Segun said. “They should urgently resume their work to reform the National Security Service to impose genuine limits on the role and powers of the agency and ensure accountability for abuses.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country