Western envoys criticize South Sudan security bill that could allow warrantless detentions

JUBA, South Sudan — (AP) — The U.S. and other western governments criticized a controversial security bill in South Sudan that would allow the government to detain people without warrants, saying it would undermine open political and civil space ahead of the country’s elections.

The security bill, which passed parliament July 3, has threatened the collapse of ongoing peace talks and prompted fears of arbitrary arrests ahead of the country's first-ever elections on Dec. 22. President Salva Kiir has 30 days to approve or veto the law.

Nine western envoys, including representatives of the U.S. and Britain, said Wednesday that the signing of the bill would “constitute a significant step away from the opening of political and civic space, which is a prerequisite for genuine and peaceful elections to take place.”

The diplomats said South Sudanese should have the right to participate freely in political and civic expression without fear of arbitrary arrest or intimidation by security personnel.

In a statement issued Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller Wednesday said that the transitional government in South Sudan must act with urgency to create an environment in which the people can express their views openly and without fear.

“Enactment of this law would further degrade political and civic space in South Sudan,” the statement read.

The law has also proved to be a sticking point in talks between the government and opposition groups that were not part of a 2018 peace agreement that ended the five-year civil war in which nearly 400,000 people died.

U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan chair Yasmin Sooka said the security bill should be returned to legislators to “work on amendments that align with the government’s commitment to scrap this institution’s arrest powers, which are systematically abused and unlawful.”

The Commission has reported human rights violations by South Sudanese security agencies that include illegal detentions during which victims have been tortured, with many having died in detention.

“As South Sudan prepares for its first elections since independence, the citizenry must be able to exercise their civil and political rights without fear of retribution,” said commission member Barney Afako.

In February, South Sudan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes protection from arbitrary arrest and detentions, and requires that anyone arrested or detained be brought promptly before a judge.

But the country, which is Eastern Africa’s youngest nation, has a fragile judiciary.

Commissioner Carlos Castresana Fernández said the “courts lack independence, are chronically under-resourced, and thus unable to protect citizens against arbitrary detentions.”

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