July 12, 2012 (JUBA) - South Sudan’s interior ministry has denied that the country’s security services were involved in the recent three-day kidnap and torture of, Deng Athuai, a leading anti-corruption activist.
- A member of the SPLA stands guard during celebrations to mark the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence in Juba, July 9, 2012 (Reuters)
South Sudan Interior Minister Alison Monani Magaya told AFP that police were investigating Athuai’s abduction and torture, but said the attack was politically motivated.
Athuai, the chairperson of the South Sudan’s Civil Society Alliance, has been one of the leading voices in South Sudan calling for the 75 officials accused of corruption in a letter from President Salva Kiir to be named.
An estimated $4 billion has been stolen since former rebels the SPLM came to power as part of a 2005 peace deal. Celebrating independence on July 9 Kiir promised to fight corruption on the impoverished East African nation.
"I found myself tied down on a big chair in a dark room," Athui told AFP news agency on Thursday. After he was grabbed from just outside his home in Juba on July 4 his kidnappers bound him and put a bag over his head.
"They were saying: ’Tell us who is paying you and telling you to come and cause a crisis in this country,’" he added.
London-based rights group Global Witness estimates that one third of South Sudan’s $12 billion income since 2005 - mostly from oil-production until pipelines were closed earlier this year as part of a dispute with Sudan - has been stolen by current and former officials.
Athui said that he managed to escaped when he refused to hide when soldiers approached the area of forest that he was being held in outside the capital.
"They told me to lie down as the military was coming and I refused so they ran away — they took me to that forest and I don’t know if they meant to kill me."
He managed to reach the road despite being beaten, bound, gagged and with the bag on his head.
A military intelligence source told Sudan Tribune that Athuai was found "crying inside sack along the road side” between Kabur-tit and Gumba forest by the South Sudan security services.
He was found and taken to Juba Teaching Hospital, where colleagues described his condition as critical.
Athui said that threats against colleagues had continued after his escape through text messages urging them not to associate themselves with him.
"They say: ’When you talk more, you’ll be following your chairperson — but won’t get away,’" the head of South Sudan’s Civil Society Alliance said.
Edmund Yakani, a member of the alliance told Sudan Tribune that civil society groups in South Sudan operate in fear of attacks.
Dana Wilkins of Global Witness said Juba must bring to justice those responsible for the attack.
"When civil society’s freedom to operate is threatened, all efforts to fight corruption and impunity are threatened," the human rights campaigner said in a statement.
"The South Sudanese government has promised its citizens an open and democratic society. It must now make good on that promise by bringing Deng Athuai’s attackers to justice."
Despite rampant corruption being recognised by donors and the South Sudanese authorities as one of the largest problems facing the 12 month old nation, not a single official has been prosecuted since Kiir’s government came to power in 2005.
Athui stressed that he would continue his campaign.
"I will not give up," he said. "This corruption and these people, if we give them space there will be no future for this country."
President Kiir, in a letter issued on 3 May, accused some government officials of stealing US$4 billion from government coffers. The President, in his strongly-worded letter, also said amnesty awaits those who will comply with the directive and that the funds should be deposited in a Kenyan-based bank account.
While speaking at the country’s first anniversary celebrations on Monday, the South Sudan leader reiterated his commitment to fight corruption in the country, lauding the tremendous support shown by the civil society, lawmakers and citizens.
“I will pursue this fight against corruption in a manner that will not undermine the fundamental rights guaranteed in our constitution through our various tools and institutions of government,” said Kiir amidst cheers from the crowd.
"We must build institutions to sustain our new nation,” he added.
Global Witness’s statement appealed to the South Sudanese government to take “immediate” action in identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the recent attack.
The incident followed a 11 June demonstration members of the Civil Society Alliance held in Juba, during which they petitioned President Salva Kiir to publicly declare the names of the 75 former and current officials suspected to have swindled public funds.
Local civil society groups, according to Global Witness, play a pivotal role in this fight against corruption, through exposing wrongdoings, advocacy for change, and provide a voice for affected communities and the wider public.
“But to be effective, they must be able to conduct research, publish reports, and campaign on their issues freely and without fear of intimidation. The recent attack on Mr. Athuai undermines that freedom,” Wilkins noted.
"No South Sudanese citizen should live in fear of speaking out,” the Global Witness campaigner added, while calling upon the government to take “robust” action to ensure that civil society groups can operate safely and under the full protection of the law.
For fear of retribution no human rights or civil society activist in South Sudan is willing to publicly accuse South Sudan individual members of the government of being behind Athuai’s abduction. Speaking on condition of anonymity, however, some are willing to blame elements of the security apparatus.
In a statement the Alliance said that its members "strongly believes that the act must have been done by individuals within the government who have their own evil intentions against the Alliance’s leader or the civil society as a whole".
Security Services Deny Involvement
"We suspect that these acts were carried out by some gangs... We don’t understand why this is happening, we do not expect people to be intimidated for their views," he said.
South Sudan’s deputy interior minister, Salva Mathok, appeared told The Citizen newspaper that Athuai’s kidnap and beating was the “act of professional people”.
He denied claims that government officials could be directly involved in the intimidation of South Sudan’s civil society and their crusade against corruption.
"The main concerns are the ongoing threats and people may be thinking the government is involved and that is not true. We are working to catch these criminals," Mathok said.
No arrests have been made in relation to the kidnap and torture of the activist, which was strongly condemned by the civil society fraternity, lawmakers and South Sudanese public.