South Sudan’s spy agency abuses prisoners, says rights group

Jabbing needles in prisoners’ genitals, pouring melted plastic on their skin and hanging them upside down for long periods: These are tortures allegedly being perpetrated by South Sudan’s National Security Service, according to an international human rights group.

Electric shocks, gang rapes, abductions and killings are also abuses carried out by the security agency charged Human Rights Watch in a study launched Monday.

Established in 2011 — shortly after the country gained independence — South Sudan’s National Security Service has been operating beyond its constitutional mandate of collecting information, conducting analysis and advising relevant authorities, the report said.

Within months of its establishment, the agency’s agents began imprisoning journalists and government critics and carrying out physical and telephonic surveillance, according to the report titled “‘What Crime Was I Paying For?’ Abuses by South Sudan’s National Security Service.”

“Today, it has become one of the government’s most important tools of repression,” the report said.

Acting army spokesman Santo Domic Chol dismissed the report, saying its charges are “completely unfounded” and there is no evidence that the National Security Service is committing abuse.

“This is a country that believes in its law and the judiciary,” he said Monday.

After civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, the security agency started a crackdown on people viewed as antigovernment and targeted human rights defenders, businessmen, journalists and students, the report said.

The report is based on interviews with 48 former detainees and 37 others including security officials and family members of people detained. The research was carried out between 2014 and 2020, said Human Rights Watch.

The security agency operates without meaningful judicial or legislative oversight and its agents enjoy immunity from prosecution, said the report.

Although governed by the National Security Service Act, Human Rights Watch says the agency effectively operates above the law. Agents hold detainees in sites that are not designated as detention facilities under the law, according to the report.

They do not conduct arrests based on warrants or court orders, but on their own initiative, and routinely hold detainees for long periods, even years, without charge or access to lawyers or visitors, it said.

However, other experts said the charges against South Sudan’s security agency are serious.

“The level of impunity by the organized forces is worrying especially at such a critical time of implementation of the (peace deal),” said Phillips Anyang, a human rights lawyer with the group Advocates Without Borders.

“Distrust is growing and the population remains in agony,” he said. “Sad still is the silence of the leadership.”

South Sudan is recovering from five years of civil war that killed almost 400,000 people, according to a study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Deadly violence is continuing in some parts of the country while a coalition government formed this year between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar is behind schedule in implementing reforms.

“The peace agreements envision security reforms as a critical component of the transition. Our findings underscore the importance of a rights-driven, rights-respecting security reform process in which citizens are protected against torture and other ill treatments, unlawful detention, unlawful killings enforced disappearances, and violation of their privacy rights,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director for Human Rights Watch told The Associated Press.

A U.N. report released in October said South Sudan has made no concrete steps toward national healing more than two years after the end of the civil war that caused more than 2 million people to flee their homes.