Report details arbitrary detention, dire conditions in South Sudan

Human Rights Watch documents flawed processes, unlawful detentions, and dire conditions in South Sudan's prisons in report released on 21 June.

The Human Rights Watch research was carried out in 12 of the country's 79 prisons, in areas with the largest prison populations. More than 250 inmates and a range of justice officials, correctional officers, police, prosecutors, and traditional authorities were interviewed.

South Sudan's plural legal system, in which formal courts co-exist with customary courts presided over by chiefs, presents concerns relating to the guarantee of due process rights. Human Rights Watch researchers met scores of people sent to prison by chiefs who had no formal legal training, for crimes that do not appear in South Sudan's criminal code. Though these courts are more accessible and efficient in some respects than the formal courts, the courts' criminal jurisdiction and sentencing powers are not sufficiently clear, Human Rights Watch found.

Many inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch were held for marital or sexual offenses such as adultery and elopement - offenses in both statutory and customary laws that violate internationally protected rights to privacy and to marry a spouse of one's choice. Others were detained for indeterminate periods because they could not pay debts, court-ordered fines, or compensation awards, which are often defined as a number of cattle. They had no idea when they would be released.

Human Rights Watch found that some of those behind bars have not been accused of, much less tried for, any crime at all, and some were detained as proxies to compel the appearance of a relative or friend.

About 90 people were in prison solely because they appear to have mental disabilities. The people of South Sudan have endured decades of wartime trauma, but the country has no mental health facilities. People who show signs of mental disability are often summarily sent to prison, in the absence of any health facility where they can get appropriate care.

"Many of South Sudan's prisoners are incarcerated following flawed arrests and prosecutions, detained without any solid legal justification, or sentenced for behavior that quite simply should not be criminalized as to do so is a violation of basic rights and freedoms," Bekele said. "Such detentions are arbitrary - and therefore illegal - under international law and often violate South Sudan's own constitution and laws."

Conditions in South Sudan's prisons compound the injustices. Prison infrastructure is rudimentary and in some cases damaged or crumbling. Cells are unhygienic, severely overcrowded, and lack sufficient ventilation. Inmates do not get enough to eat and in some prisons water also is in short supply. Prisoners are vulnerable to illness and disease, Human Rights Watch found, but when they fall sick, they rarely receive proper care, unless they can pay for medicine themselves.

Inmates reported that prison officers routinely beat them with sticks, canes, or whips for disciplinary infractions. Some inmates are permanently chained in heavy shackles, in violation of domestic and international standards for the use of restraints, and which also constitutes prohibited cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.

In all the prisons Human Rights Watch visited, children are detained alongside adults and are not offered rehabilitation programs or sufficient educational opportunities, as required under South Sudan's Child Act.

The Justice and Interior Ministries and the judiciary, with support from international agencies and donors, should make it an urgent priority to review the files of all prisoners, Human Rights Watch said. They should identify prisoners for whom there is no legal basis for their continued detention and release all but those whose continued detention is strictly justified. Case reviews and increased coordination within the justice sector would help eliminate arbitrary detention, which would help reduce prison numbers and would not require substantial expenditure, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition, South Sudan should ensure sufficient training in due process and fair trial standards for police, prosecutors, and judges. Existing training programs lack sufficient breadth and depth, and do not address some of the problems Human Rights Watch identified. The government also needs to establish an effective legal aid system, which will also need donor support, Human Rights Watch said.

Wide-ranging legal and policy reforms are needed to limit pretrial detention periods, clarify the criminal jurisdiction of customary courts, and end imprisonment for adultery and for non-payment of debt. Authorities should also immediately stop arbitrarily imprisoning people because they show signs of mental disabilities, and find a way to ensure access to care for people with mental disabilities.


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