Lawyers union seeks EACJ help to free Juba political prisoners

Saturday October 20 2018

salva kiir, riek machar

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (right) and rebel leader Riek Machar make a peace deal at the 33rd Extraordinary Summit of Igad in Addis Ababa on September 12, 2018. PHOTO | AFP 

By FRED OLUOCH
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The Arusha-based Pan African Lawyers Union has gone to the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to force the South Sudan government to release political detainees.

The release of political detainees was part of the September 12 peace agreement.

Denald Deya, PALU chief executive, has filed a Habeas Corpus — a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge — at the EACJ for businessman and philanthropist, Kerbino Wol Agok, who has been detained without trial since April.

Allies of Mr Agok told The EastAfrican that they do not know his whereabouts since he led a prisoners’ protest at the National Security Service premises commonly known as the Blue House on October 7.

Amnesty International has also called for the release of a prominent South Sudanese academician and activist Peter Biar Ajak, who was arrested on July 28 at the Juba International Airport and is believed to be held at the Blue House.

The government is accused of denying the detainees access to their families, lawyers and doctors. They are confined and given one meal per day.

Since Mr Ajak’s arrest, the campaign #FreePeterBiar has generated considerable support online, with 78,600 people signing a petition calling for his release.

Mr Ajak has been the leading voice of the civil society in South Sudan, calling for generational change as the only way for peace to come to South Sudan. Amnesty International says that it is believed that his arrest is linked to the youth forum that he intended to hold in Aweil.

In the case filed by PALU at the EACJ, Mr Deya says that there are fears that Mr Agok’s life is in danger and the lawyers’ organisation is invoking the court’s powers to compel the South Sudan attorney general to promptly produce him in the court.

Shortly after PALU filed the case at the court, NSS officers are said to have stormed Mr Agok’s security firm, KASS, confined staff members into a room and ransacked the premises. Later they ordered the staff to go home and not to return to work.

Mr Agok’s high-end restaurant in Juba has also been closed and the Central Bank has ordered the freezing of all his accounts.

The South Sudan Constitution says that a suspect must be produced in court within 24 hours of arrest. However, hundreds of political detainees continue to languish in prison without being told of their crimes or charged in court and are not allowed visits by family and lawyers.

The Revitalised Peace Agreement signed on September 12 has express provisions for the release of all political detainees and prisoners of war. An earlier cessation of hostilities agreement signed in December 2017 had also called for the release of all prisoners of war.

On September 17, President Salva Kiir issued a decree that political detainees be released with immediate effect. However, sources in Juba told The EastAfrican that some top military officials have ignored the decree because of the influence they wield.

According to the Amnesty International Report published in September under the title A trail of broken promises, South Sudanese authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and ill-treated people to the point of death, despite repeated promises to release detainees.

"People in South Sudan have been arrested for their political and ethnic affiliations and are then subjected to unimaginable suffering— sometimes leading to death — at the hands of the government's security forces," said Seif Magango, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

Between February and July 2017, four men — Mike Tyson, Alison Mogga Tadeo, Richard Otti and Andria Baambe — died in detention due to harsh conditions and inadequate medical care. The four, who were arrested in 2014, were held without charge, for alleged links to the opposition.

Amnesty International has previously documented the deaths of at least 20 people in detention between February 2014 and December 2016.

In January 2017, Dong Samuel, a lawyer and human-rights advocate, and Aggrey Idri, chairman of the South Sudanese opposition’s humanitarian affairs committee — who was registered as a refugee with the UNHCR — were abducted in Nairobi with the help of Kenyan security agents, deported to Juba and their fate remains unknown.

"It is extremely unconscionable that South Sudanese authorities arrest, torture and ill-treat people in total disregard for their human-rights. The government must end these arbitrary detentions by immediately releasing the detainees or charging them with internationally recognisable offenses. It must also hold to account all those responsible for these grave human-rights violations and deaths in detention," said Mr Magango.

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