WASHINGTON — Leading human rights groups on Friday called on South Sudanese authorities to open a full probe into the deaths in December of protesters in the city of Wau, in Western Bahr el Ghazal, who were shot by security forces.
“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would like authorities to ensure a full, effective and impartial investigation that would lead to the prosecution of those responsible for these killings,” Skye Wheeler, a Human Rights Watch researcher who focuses on South Sudan, said.
She called the December 9 protest in Wau "peaceful" and asserted that it turned deadly when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.
Six people died on the spot and two more died later in hospital. The shootings have never been investigated.
That protest came a day after two youths who were part of a group that was barricading the road into Wau were shot and killed by the security forces. The youths had blocked off the roadway to protest a decision taken by state officials two months earlier to move county administrative offices from Wau to nearby Baggari.
Wheeler said some communities felt the decision to relocate the county offices was made without consulting them.
Amnesty International visited Wau and issued a report on the violence in February.
Human Rights Watch visited the city in February and in May. During the second visit, the rights group said state Governor Rizig Zakaria Hassan told them that police shot the December 9 protesters "while defending the nearby South Sudan Bank against 'rioters.'”
But Wheeler said most of the protesters seen in video footage of the shooting appear to be unarmed, with many carrying tree branches and signs.
“Those who were present at the protest say that the security forces shot into the protest as soon as they saw them,” she said.
“There doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to minimize death or injury, and there were no warnings, as far as we can tell, that the security forces were going to use their firearms.”
Wheeler said that many families of those injured and killed in Wau in December are afraid to bring cases to court or complain to the police.
“No investigation has been done,” the wife of one of the men who was killed was quoted as saying in the report by the two rights groups.
“If we open our mouths, that same day I will be put in jail and then my children will suffer more.”
According to Samuel Dhong, Secretary General for the South Sudan Law Society, South Sudan’s legal system does not have the capacity to handle such cases.
“That’s why in some communities, they take things into their own hands because the judiciary is not forthcoming to restore the damage that has been caused or bring the perpetrators to book,” he said.
“It’s a big issue that the judiciary in South Sudan needs to work hard to make sure that justice is administered and delivered.”
Western Bahr el Ghazal Minister of Information Derik Alfred had no comment on the matter when he was contacted by VOA News.