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South Sudan Lawmakers Delay Vote on Controversial Security Bill

South Sudan's National Assembly

Lawmakers in South Sudan on Thursday put off a vote on a bill that opponents say would give unrestricted powers to the National Security Service, but supporters say would make everyone in South Sudan safer.

The National Security Service bill was drafted by the Ministry of Justice and submitted to the National Assembly in May. It was to have gone through its third and final reading Thursday, but that is now expected to happen next week.

Amnesty International logo
Amnesty International logo

Opponents of the bill, including rights group Amnesty International, say that, in its present form, the draft legislation goes against South Sudan's transitional constitution.

“The law does not specify permissible places of detention. It does not guarantee the right of individuals detained to effective defense or to communicate in private with a lawyer at the moment of arrest. It fails to implement constitutional guarantees that people in detention should be informed about the reasons of arrest at the moment of arrest and that they be presented to a judicial authority within 24 hours," Amnesty's South Sudan researcher, Elizabeth Ashamu Deng, told South Sudan in Focus.

Ashamu said the bill also "does not provide adequate mechanisms for ensuring accountability" among national security officials.

"It provides that complaints to the National Security Service should be made to the National Security Service itself. It also provides that members of the National Security Service would have criminal immunity unless criminal proceedings are authorized by the minister or the director general,” she said.

Amnesty has urged members of parliament to vote against the bill.

Excessive power

Minority Leader Onyoti Adigo agreed that the the bill gives security officers excessively broad powers.

"In our constitution, article 159(e) talks of national security being professionals in its mandate who shall focus on information gathering, analyze them and then after analyzing them, advise to the relevant authority to take action," he said.

"We are afraid of this because some people can abuse the powers, can arrest anybody," he said.

But Samual Duwar Deng, the chair of the parliamentary committee that handles security and public order, said the bill should be backed in its current form. He said he expects the bill will be passed by lawmakers next week.

He said that once the bill becomes law, it will better protect "the people of South Sudan and the interest of the country itself.”

Bill likely to pass

Adiga's SPLM-DC is the largest opposition party in parliament, with six lawmakers. Unless members of the ruling SPLM vote with the opposition and make changes to the bill, it will pass in its current form, he said.

Lawmakers delayed a recess that was scheduled to start Thursday until the bill is passed.

Ashamu said that although it is urgent that the bill be passed into law, members of parliament should revise it and make sure that it complies with South Sudan's transitional constitution and with international human rights law.

She said security officers already overstep their bounds, and have done so even more often since the start of the conflict in South Sudan.

Ashamu said the security forces have unlawfully detained people and undermined freedom of expression by harassing, intimidating and arbitrarily arresting journalists.

"As urgent as this legislation may be, any law that is passed really needs to ensure appropriate limits on the powers of the National Security Service,” she said.

Lucy Poni contributed to this report from Washington, D.C., where she is an Atlas Corps fellow.