Kenya and South Sudan must find, compensate missing activists – rights groups

Presidents Salva Kiir (South Sudan) and Uhuru Kenyatta at State House in Nairobi, November 29, 2017. PHOTO CREDIT: PSCU

Kenya and South Sudan have been urged to step up investigations and disclose the whereabouts of Dong Luak and Aggrey Idri who went missing a year ago.

Luak is a renown South Sudanese human rights lawyer and activist while Idri is a vocal government critic and member of the opposition.

They went missing on Nairobi on January 23 and 24, 2017 respectively. Observers and human rights group believe they were abducted by or at the request of South Sudanese officials.

In a statement on Tuesday, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch faulted authorities for failing to investigate the “enforced disappearances”.

“These two prominent men should not be allowed to simply vanish into thin air without a trace. Responsibility for the safety of both men lies with both South Sudan and Kenya yet neither is making a real effort to solve their disappearance,” said HRW’s Africa director Mausi Segun.

The groups noted that opponents of the South Sudanese government, real or perceived, have been targets of abuse and threats – apparently from government sources – even when outside the country.

Numerous activists and opposition members who fled South Sudan have reported threats and intimidation by suspected government agents.

Luak fled the country in 2013 but continued to denounce human rights abuses and corruption after moving to Nairobi in August 2013.

On January 27, 2017, a Kenyan court ruled that the men should not be deported but by then, both had gone missing and were presumed illegally transferred to Juba.

In February 2017, non-governmental organisations and family representatives filed a habeas corpus petition in a Kenyan court for the men’s release. But on February 22, the court found there was insufficient evidence that they were ever in Kenyan custody.

The judge ordered police to open a criminal investigation which is ongoing.

Even though South Sudanese officials have denied holding the men or knowing where they are, Amnesty and HRW said they had credible information that the two men had been seen in custody at the National Security Services (NSS) headquarters in Juba on January 25 and 26 last year.

The rights groups said the two removed from the facility on January 27.

Kenya has also denied any involvement in the disappearances but the two organisation note that in recent years, Kenya has allowed the deportation of several people with refugee status to their countries of origin.

‘Ensure reparations for crimes’

The organisations cite the November 2016 unlawful deportation of James Gatdet, a South Sudanese opposition member and spokesperson for opposition leader Riek Machar. He was deported to South Sudan even though he had refugee status.

“He was held in solitary confinement at the NSS headquarters in Juba then charged with treason and other crimes against the state in August 2017. On December 29, opposition official Marko Lokior was abducted from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya,” AI and HRW said in a joint press release.

The lobbies explained that the forced disappearances and return of the men to South Sudan – where they risk human rights violations including torture and other ill-treatment – violate international law as well as regional and national Kenyan law.

“Enforced disappearances and torture are both crimes under international law in all circumstances and may be subject to prosecution as war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Since South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, the groups say NSS has arbitrarily detained dozens of perceived opponents, often torturing and ill-treating them with electric shocks, beatings, and harsh conditions.

Authorities have also been accused of enforced disappearances as part of their campaign against those perceived to be government opponents. But South Sudan has denied knowledge of a detention or abduction.

On December 21, 2017, the South Sudan government and other opposition groups signed the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in an effort to revitalise the 2015 Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan.

As part of the agreement, the government is required to release all political prisoners and detainees, prisoners of war and anyone deprived of liberty for reasons related to the conflict. The people are to be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“South Sudan should demonstrate it is serious about releasing political prisoners held unlawfully,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

“Both the South Sudanese and Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate and disclose the whereabouts and fates of the two men and ensure justice, truth and reparation for crimes committed against them.”