South Sudanese authorities have arrested civil society activists and a politician and closed down a radio station and an academic think-tank, signaling a new wave of repression in response to calls for peaceful protests, said Amnesty International.
The uptick in arbitrary arrests and other measures come after the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA), a recently-formed umbrella group of government critics, called for peaceful country-wide protests on 30 August to force the government to step down, citing “failed leadership”.
“We are witnessing a new wave of repression emerging in South Sudan targeting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.
“Peaceful protests must be facilitated rather than cracked down upon or prevented with arrests, harassment, heavy security deployment or any other punitive measures.”
Speaking to media yesterday, the Minister of Information, Communication Technology and Postal Services said that the government “prevented it [the protest] … to have a peaceful South Sudan”, arguing that any demonstration calling for change in leadership is not peaceful.
In the lead-up to the planned protests, the country’s National Security Service (NSS) arrested Kuel Aguer Kuel, the former caretaker governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal State and one of the PCCA’s co-founders in the capital, Juba, on 2 August. The authorities continue to hold him at Juba Central Prison with very limited access to his family. He has been charged with five offenses against the state including subverting constitutional government; insurgency, banditry, sabotage, or terrorism; causing disaffection among police force or defence forces; publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to Southern Sudan; and undermining authority of or insulting the president. Two other co-founders, Ibrahim Awolich and Rajab Mohandis, went into hiding in fear of arrest. The authorities also closed down the Sudd Institute, a think-tank Awolich works for.
Amnesty International has documented an increase in arbitrary arrests across the country in the days leading up to the planned protests. Between 25 and 28 August, four more men were arrested in the southern town of Yei, including a bishop, on suspicion of supporting the PCCA and mobilizing people to take part in the planned protests. They are held in a Military Intelligence detention facility and were charged with treason, a crime punishable by death under South Sudanese law, and with participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry.
On 27 August, the NSS briefly arrested three media workers in Bor, a town north of the capital Juba. That same day in the morning, in Wau, western South Sudan, the NSS arrested three civil society members who were distributing T-shirts for a peaceful walk to raise awareness on gender-based violence before releasing them later that day. At least two other men were arrested in relation to the peaceful walk and the NSS prevented the walk from happening.
On the eve of the planned protests, Amnesty International started receiving reports about internet disruptions which lasted until late afternoon of Monday, 30 August. Graphs published by network measurement experts, alongside media reports provide strong evidence of network disruptions. The internet cut, which the Minister of Information, Communication Technology and Postal Services attributed to technical problems,ended coincidentally as soon as it was clear that the protests planned for 30 August had failed to take place. Amnesty International suspects that the internet shutdown may have been a deliberate attempt by the authorities to derail the protests.
“Internet shutdowns and disruptions adversely affect people’s ability to exercise their rights to freedom of information, expression, association and peaceful assembly. The South Sudanese authorities and internet service providers must clarify their role in the disruption,” said Deprose Muchena.
Businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate. If the shutdown of internet services was formally or informally ordered by South Sudan, internet providers should oppose such measures and carry out ongoing human rights due diligence to identify, prevent and mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of such a shutdown or those arising from their business relationships.
In the week since the aborted protests, Amnesty International has received more reports of harassment of civil society actors across the country including in Juba, Yei, Bor and Wau, with some suspecting they were being surveilled by security forces. On 1 September, a leading civil society activist reported that two of his staff members had been taken by National Security Service members following days of government surveillance of the organization’s office. The two men were released after hours of questioning.
The PCCA was formed on 30 July by a group of South Sudanese politicians, civil society members, leaders of think-tanks. In its declaration, it condemns what it says are fundamental problems in South Sudan, including a lack of basic services, corruption, unemployment, lack of accountability and respect for human rights. Citing failed leadership as the cause of these problems, it is calling on the current leadership, including President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, to step down.
On 2 February 2021, Amnesty International published an in-depth report into unlawful and unchecked communication surveillance in South Sudan and how it is used to harass and intimidate journalists, activists, and critics, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.
South Sudanese authorities have prevented protests in the recent past. In July 2019, arrests, threats, and heavy deployment of the military derailed protests called by the Red Card Movement in Juba, deterring protesters from taking to the streets of the capital.