08.22.18

Leahy Floor Statement On Arbitrary Detention In South Sudan

Mr. President, several of the warring parties in the South Sudanese civil war, including President Kiir and the leader of the main opposition party, Riek Machar, recently signed a power-sharing deal to ostensibly bring to an end a conflict that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the largest refugee crisis in Africa.  Today in South Sudan there are nearly 200,000 people sheltering at UN peacekeeping bases, 4.5 million people have been forcibly displaced, and an estimated 7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.  Several ceasefires have been negotiated and broken by both sides since the conflict began in December 2013, and the United States has invested well over $3 billion in humanitarian aid to help the people of South Sudan who have been largely abandoned by their political leaders. 

Unfortunately, the viability of the recent power-sharing deal, and the prospects for a broader peace agreement, remain in question.  What we do know is that decades of corruption, marginalization, political manipulation, and human rights atrocities led to the most recent iteration of catastrophic violence in South Sudan, and it will take decades for the country to fully recover.  But there is at least one action that President Kiir should take today that would have immediate benefits: the release of all political prisoners, journalists, academics, and others who have been detained as a result of peacefully exercising their right to free expression.

One such individual is Peter Biar Ajak.  Mr. Ajak was resettled in Philadelphia in January 2001 as a teenage refugee of the Sudanese civil war and one of the 40,000 “Lost Boys” left homeless by that conflict.  Remarkably, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard and is now a doctoral candidate at Cambridge.  Mr. Ajak has been a courageous and vocal critic of the failed peace process in South Sudan, particularly the role of President Kiir and opposition leader Machar who for years have put amassing wealth and power for themselves far above the welfare and rights of the South Sudanese people.  It is this criticism that his supporters believe led to his arrest and imprisonment on July 28th by the South Sudan National Security Service (NSS).

While the charges against him have not been publicly confirmed, Mr. Ajak is allegedly being charged with treason and other crimes against the state, and has reportedly been denied access to a lawyer.  Reports suggest he is one of several dozen detainees being held by the NSS at the infamous Blue House prison in Juba. 

Mr. Ajak’s detention is consistent with a pattern of abuses by the NSS, which has been implicated in the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists, national staff of the United Nations, academics, civil society activists, and young business leaders like Kerbino Wol; the forced disappearance of human rights lawyers and members of the political opposition such as Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri, respectively; and other human rights violations and denials of due process.  Although President Kiir has previously announced that he would release all political prisoners, and his government has committed under a recent deal to release detainees, human rights monitors continue to report that dozens of people remain detained without charge at the Blue House and other detention sites in the capital.

No matter what documents are signed to move the country beyond its civil war, true peace and stability will not be achieved if the government continues to repress free speech and arrest, detain, and forcibly disappear journalists, politicians, academics, and members of civil society.  If and when the U.S. Government is again called on to support the Government of South Sudan and to help rebuild its security services, their actions in this conflict – and their treatment of people like Peter Biar Ajak – will not be forgotten.  I urge all Senators to join me in calling for the immediate release of Mr. Ajak and other prisoners of conscience, and accountability for the perpetrators of such abuses. 

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