South Sudan: Civilians Killed, Tortured in Western Region

South Sudanese government soldiers have carried out a wide range of often-deadly attacks on civilians in and around the western town of Wau, Human Rights Watch said today. Soldiers have killed, tortured, raped, and detained civilians and looted and burned down homes.

The abuses in the Western Bahr el Ghazal region took place during government counterinsurgency operations that intensified after an August 2015 peace deal. The attacks underscore the need for the national unity government to take immediate steps toward accountability for crimes by all warring parties since the start of South Sudan’s conflict in December 2013.

With all eyes on the new national unity government in Juba, government soldiers have been literally getting away with murder in the country’s western regions,rdquo; said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. The new government should immediately call a halt to the abuse, free all arbitrarily detained civilians, and support the creation of a war crimes court that can investigate and prosecute those responsible, including at the highest levels of authority.rdquo;

Since December 2015, newly deployed, mostly Dinka, soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have attacked ethnic Fertit civilians in villages and neighborhoods of the town of Wau.

The abuses have forced tens of thousands of people to flee, leaving villages and entire neighborhoods empty, Human Rights Watch found during a research mission to Wau in April 2016. In the neighboring region of Western Equatoria, Human Rights Watch documented the army’s similarly abusive counterinsurgency tactics, also along ethnic lines, in February 2016.

A surge in abuses began in late December and continued into the spring, after large numbers of new soldiers from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap were deployed in and around Wau. Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that the deployment was part of a counterinsurgency operation against mostly Fertit rebels based southwest of Wau.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous killings, most of which were reportedly committed by the newly-deployed Dinka soldiers. On April 9, researchers visiting Wau hospital saw the body of a man whom witnesses had seen soldiers shoot dead, in apparent retaliation for the killing of a soldier earlier that day by civilians. Shortly after the man was killed, the soldiers also killed two brothers and wounded their sister, again in retaliation, witnesses said.

On February 18, government forces retreating from combat with rebels outside of Wau fired indiscriminately on civilians in mostly Fertit neighbourhoods, killing at least two men in front of a police station, including a Fertit policeman. Later that day, near the same police post, witnesses said a soldier executed three young Fertit men on the basis of their ethnicity.

Soldiers have also unlawfully detained scores of Fertit men for up to five months, without charge or access to legal assistance, in two facilities, one of them within Wau’s main military barrack, behind the commander’s office. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they saw inmates die in detention.

At least eight former detainees said they were kept in cramped cells and forced to sleep next to a latrine, exposing them to various skin parasites. Most said they were beaten with electric wires or rubber tubes, often while their arms were tightly tied behind their backs for hours; others reported being given electric shocks.

There’s a machine they connect you to and it makes your body shiver,rdquo; recalled a 25-year-old man who was detained for more than three months after he was accused of milling grain for rebels in his village. It has electricity. They took me to the machine and put the wires on me.rdquo;

The soldiers also attacked civilians and committed abuses during operations outside of Wau in December in the villages of Moimoi, Ngumba, and Khorkanda, among others. Witnesses said soldiers attacked, burned, and looted houses and killed civilians, including two elderly women who had been unable to flee before the troops arrived.

The soldiers are under the command of Chief of General Staff Paul Malong and two other senior officers – Lieutenant General Jok Riak and Major General Attayib Gatluak Taitai � all of whom also held positions of command over troops who conducted a brutal offensive in Unity state last year.

Since late 2015, local authorities, including the governor of the newly created Wau state, Elias Waya Nyipuoch, and community leaders have been reporting the spate of abuses to the army and other national government officials. While the three commanders would have known about the reported abuses since at least that time, they took no steps to investigate them or to prevent further abuses.

However, in March, President Salva Kiir sent a fact-finding commission composed of high-ranking officials on a week-long mission to Wau. The commission met with victims and witnesses and with the army, and sought to reconcile communities, according to a member who spoke to Human Rights Watch. But it has yet to submit its findings to President Kiir and the abuses have continued.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch dated May 5, the SPLA categorically denied the findings that Human Rights Watch had presented in a meeting � specifically, allegations of indiscriminate killings of civilians, arbitrary arrests or looting and destruction of property.

In early May, following months of complaints by community leaders and local authorities and a condemnation of the crimes by United Nations peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, South Sudan’s army moved the soldiers out of positions in and around Wau town, residents reported. However, beyond establishing the fact-finding commission, the SPLA and other government authorities have failed to criminally investigate or prosecute the alleged crimes.

The new national unity government should ask the African Union (AU) to promptly establish the hybrid tribunal envisioned in the August 2015 peace agreement to try serious crimes in South Sudan. National authorities should also investigate and fairly prosecute human rights violations. The UN peacekeeping mission should also report publicly on the abuses and the government’s response.

South Sudan’s top army commanders need to rein in their forces, thoroughly investigate abuses and ensure that those responsible for abusing civilians are fairly held to account,rdquo; Bekele said. They should know that they too could face international and criminal sanctions if they don’t take concrete action in accordance with the law.rdquo;

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW).