Scores pay in crackdown over S Sudan protest
Rights groups cry foul as police detain many, including some who were not in country during deadly December protest.
Wau, South Sudan – Dr James Angelo Faki finished his rounds at the government hospital in Wau, in South Sudan, and went to search for his father.
Faki’s father had been charged with involvement in an illegal protest and was to appear in court that day, February 26, in Wau, about 650km northwest of the capital Juba.
Three months earlier, the town was the scene of a horrific shooting when men in uniforms opened fire with live ammunition into a crowd of unarmed protesters, killing at least nine people.
|Dr James Angelo Faki has been held since February [Al Jazeera]|
Since the December 9 massacre, scores of South Sudanese have been arrested and detained, accused simply of demonstrating illegally, according to a report by Amnesty International.
When he arrived at the courthouse, Faki found the door to the session closed. So he sat down opposite the building to wait for proceedings to come to an end.
While he waited, Faki was approached by plainclothes police officers who asked him to accompany them to the station, a source with knowledge of the incident tells Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity citing the threat of arrest.
The doctor has been in detention ever since, accused of involvement – like his father – in the Wau demonstrations. Curiously, however, Faki was in Tanzania at the time his crime was allegedly committed.
The demonstrations that began in December are against a plan by the governor of Western Bahr El Ghazal state, Governor Rizik Zakaria Hassan, to move the state headquarters from Wau to Bagari town, 19km away. Many Wau residents say the move is meant to marginalise them.
Faki is one of the dozens of people rights groups say are being held without due process in South Sudan. Fears are growing that the world’s newest nation is becoming more repressive, after it split from Sudan to the north in July 2011 following a decades-long civil war.
A member of the United Nations staff was also arrested in late February, apparently for his involvement in the protests.
Earlier in the year, the UN worker had been threatened with arrest and evacuated from Wau by the United Nations. Subsequently, Governor Rizik gave the UN his assurance that the man would not be arrested if he returned. But days after he went back to Wau, he was picked up outside his home and taken to prison, but released later that day.
“The arrest was another violation of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement),” the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said at the time in a statement. “UNMISS is engaged in discussions with the government to jointly develop standing measures to prevent the recurrent violations and interference with staff members carrying out their duties.”
The “recurrent violations and interference” also include the illegal detention of two UN Human Rights officers in Juba in January.
The UN workers had been investigating threats made against journalists when they were called to a meeting at a branch of the security services. After they arrived, they were prevented from leaving and questioned for several hours, a statement from the UN mission to Al Jazeera says.
These incidents were “grave violations of the agreements the government has signed, and the privileges and immunities of United Nations personnel”, it says.
The UN mission in Juba raised the issue with President Salva Kiir who has called on all security organs of the country to allow United Nations workers to fulfill their mandate.
In some cases, people are reported to have been arrested and detained by institutions that lack any legal right to do so.
Human Rights Watch says it has documented incidents of members from the National Security, South Sudan’s intelligence service, detaining people for weeks or months before bringing any legal charges, or handing them over to the appropriate authorities.
“The whole justice system in South Sudan is in shambles and it’s impossible to guarantee these trials will be fair.“
– Ateny Wek, Policy Advocacy and Strategic Studies
“We have seen many cases of intimidation, harassment and arrests of journalists and other members of civil society in Wau and other parts of South Sudan in various contexts. In some cases, the arresting authorities may lack awareness of the limits of their powers,” Jehanne Henry from Human Rights Watch tells Al Jazeera.
Elia Pasquale, an army soldier from Wau, was wanted by police related to the protests, but on the day officers went to his house to arrest him, he wasn’t there. In the absence of their suspect, police instead arrested his entire family.
Pasquale returned home the following day to find both of his wives and his 11 children missing. He found them at a police station and they were released when he was taken into custody. By that time, they’d been detained for 24 hours without legal basis. Elia Pasquale was released without charge after six days.
Made up charges?
Dr Faki, meanwhile, says he was at a medical course in Tanzania on treating tuberculosis between November 26 and December 14, and didn’t return to Wau until December 20. But Faki’s accused of having participated in an illegal protest on December 7.
Al Jazeera contacted the organisation running the course, which confirmed that Faki had indeed been in Tanzania at the time.
When asked about the issue, a spokesman for the police said it wasn’t possible to comment on any of the detentions as the cases are now before the court.
Governor Rizik made a similar statement to Al Jazeera, saying the matter is not political and therefore not for him to comment on.
|South Sudanese civilians at a UN camp in December [Al Jazeera]|
Special courts have been formed and the protesters’ cases are now being brought to trial, a process that may defuse tensions in Wau, which is still operating under a 7pm curfew.
Observers say they are hopeful the trials for the demonstrators will restore confidence in the rule of law, but have expressed concern that the members of the South Sudanese security forces who opened fire on the unarmed protesters in December may not face similar justice.
Ateny Wek from the non-governmental group Policy Advocacy and Strategic Studies tells Al Jazeera that two soldiers have been detained for involvement in the killings. However, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN mission could not verify that information.
“The whole justice system in South Sudan is in shambles and it’s impossible to guarantee these trials will be fair,” Wek says. “The chances of getting a fair trial in South Sudan are dwindling as impunity in this country increases.”