Witness: Silencing Dissent in South Sudan

Adiang Malish (not their real name) was used to receiving phone calls at all hours of the day and night. A busy journalist in Juba, South Sudan, the 37-year-old was regularly called by pranksters and important sources alike. When he received threatening calls asking him why he wrote articles about an opposition party, he just dismissed it as an angry reader. He never expected that one day, he’d be detained and tortured for his work.

One hot evening in May 2017, Adiang received a call from an acquaintance who told him security officers planned to arrest him. The caller, not a regular source or a friend, asked to speak to him about it over a cup of tea at a café in Juba town. The call unsettled Adiang and for a moment he hesitated, thinking about the threatening calls. He decided to go anyway.

“I didn’t report the threats because I doubt that the police would have investigated them, I also didn’t think there was a connection between the threats and this invitation for tea,” he told Human Rights Watch.

Within minutes of arriving at the café, two cars pulled up and National Security Service (NSS) officers in uniform and armed with AK-47 rifles stormed in and asked him to confirm his identity. When he did, they pushed him to the ground, kicked him, and hit him with their rifles. They put a hood over his head and carried him into a vehicle for a long fast drive. Adiang lay on his stomach in the car, thoughts rushing through his mind.

An invitation for tea led to a 9-month ordeal in detention.

A new Human Rights Watch report “‘What Crime Was I Paying For?’ Abuses by South Sudan’s National Security Service,” found that Adiang’s detention, and the torture that followed, is part of a pattern of abuses by the NSS.

The NSS was established in 2011 as an intelligence agency to collect information and advise relevant authorities. But then, in the National Security Service Act of 2014, the agency was given broad powers of arrest, detention, search, and seizure without effective civilian or judicial oversight. Human Rights Watch found that the NSS has used these powers to arbitrarily detain people – including political critics, journalists, human rights defenders, aid workers, and others – and then hold them in appalling conditions without medical care or adequate food, and abuse them. Most were then released without investigation, charge, or trial. They never saw a lawyer or a judge. Without any judicial oversight, the NSS also listens in on private conversations and forces telecommunications companies to hand over user data. As a result, the NSS has become the government’s most vital tool for repression.

Remembering the events of the night that he was detained, Adiang’s voice catches in his throat. “I thought I would die. My children would never know what happened to me.”

A father of four and a passionate journalist, Adiang told Human Rights Watch that he wants to do his part to ensure South Sudan is a stronger democracy for future generations. He believes that journalism can drive change, and a society can grow and strengthen if it allows citizens to freely question their leaders. He believed that South Sudanese leaders appreciated freedom of the press.

On the night of his arrest, the car in which he was being transported finally stopped outside a building well after dark. The men who had abducted him took him inside. He couldn’t tell where he was. He heard a man speaking on a phone confirming that they had Adiang and asking for further direction. Adiang was led further into the building, three doors opened and clung shut; it sounded like a prison. He later learned that he was at the NSS detention facility known as Riverside, because of its proximity to the Nile river.

He was placed in a small cell where he would spend the next three days. His hood was removed, but it was so dark he could barely see anything. He sat down but the room was too small for him to stretch his legs. Sometimes a soldier would bang the door, checking if he was alive. On the fourth day, the door opened and he was taken to another room for questioning. An officer asked him who he was and what crime he committed. Instead of answering the question, Adiang asked why they arrested him. The questioning stopped.

Another officer who seemed friendly asked him if he wanted some tea. Relaxing a little, Adiang accepted the offer, not knowing tea translated very differently in the NSS facility. His shirt was pulled off and his hands held by two soldiers. A third started whipping him. They told him he would receive his cup of tea, which was 300 lashes that tore his skin to ribbons and injured his spine. Blood flowed freely across his back. Other detainees were called to clean up the blood as he was dragged back into his cell.

While in detention, Adiang was given food once a day, usually beans. He missed his children and wondered if he’d ever see them again. He had to steel himself for this bleak future in detention with no known end in sight. Officers beat him frequently. Sometimes they held a cloth over his face and poured water on him, choking him. This is commony known as waterboarding. The guards discouraged communication among detainees but one day, Adiang recognized a new detainee. They were startled when they saw each other. The man told Adiang that everyone back home was worried about him, that they were searching for him. This news was a lifeline for Adiang – someone out there was thinking about him.

After four months, Adiang was transferred to another infamous NSS detention center in Juba with blue tinted windows: the Blue House. Political critics are held indefinitely there too, tortured, and even forcibly disappeared.

Adiang was interrogated extensively. He was asked about his work, “They asked me why I was a journalist, why I spoke to opposition politicians, why I wrote this article or that article.”

He was accused of siding with the opposition and providing news to agencies that worked against South Sudan. He did not accept, nor understand the accusations. For Adiang, journalism works for democracy, not against it. He defended his work.

In January 2018, Adiang was released without any charge or ever seeing a judge, far less having a court hearing. He was warned that he’d be under surveillance and that he must end his journalism career. His body bore the scars of his detention. He could barely walk and had debilitating pain in his back. His trauma caused him insomnia and bouts of anger and sadness.

His condition worsened at home, so friends in civil society helped him across the border to seek medical care in a neighboring country. Once more, he was away from his children.

Adiang’s medical treatment was extensive and required specialized care. He moved to yet another country for surgery to his spine. He continues to write about his experience in detention while he recovers. He watches his children grow via social media, calling them as much as he can.

This Human Rights Watch investigation found that many South Sudanese, government critics and activists, live in fear of the NSS, which operates unchecked. South Sudan’s government should repeal the extensive police powers of the NSS and ensure justice for victims. South Sudan’s future should be built for diverse and dissenting voices like Adiang’s, not for citizens to live in fear of a sadistic, lawless security service.