WASHINGTON - A former political detainee in South Sudan says more than 30 such prisoners continue to be held against their will, despite a vow from President Salva Kiir to release them.
Leonzio Angole Onek, dean of the college of applied and industrial sciences at the University of Juba, is calling on the president to stick to a recent promise and release 32 prominent detainees identified in December by rights group Amnesty International.
Onek said living up to that pledge would be consistent with the August 2015 peace deal aimed at ending South Sudan’s civil war.
“If President Kiir really wants forgiveness, he should release all of the detainees” as well as the prisoners being held by the national security service, he told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus program.
The 32 men and hundreds of others were detained for opposing Kiir, the embattled president at the center of South Sudan’s civil war. Rebel forces have been fighting to oust him since December 2013, amid accusations that Kiir has concentrated power in the hands of his own Dinka tribe.
Kiir used a national day of prayer last Friday to order the release of General Elia Waya Nyipoch and Major General Andria Dominic, both detained since last May. Onek said he considered the gesture a good first step.
The two generals were set free Tuesday, according to government officials.
Dire conditions for detainees
In May 2016, Amnesty International released a report detailing what it described as “appalling” conditions for South Sudanese political detainees. The report said most of the detainees were never charged with an offense, but were being held in dire conditions and fed only once or twice a day.
Onek, who was held at the Jebel Detention Facility between December 2015 and late April 2016, corroborated that report. He said that he was housed in a shipping container-like room at the facility.
“I could not sleep in the night. There was very little oxygen so my brain was kicking off and I was having nightmares,” he said.
Other prisoners lived in hot, crowded quarters, eight to a room, and locked up 24 hours, seven days a week, he says.
Onek said the guards would not feed them enough.
“We were eating beans and maize meal once a day and sometimes we had difficulty," he said. "We cannot even have the one-time-a-day meal, we could go without food for two days.”
He said he became very ill while imprisoned, and suspects other detainees have suffered similar illnesses, but have not been treated.
Both Onek and Amnesty International said they have received information that detainees have died in captivity, but Amnesty said it could not verify any deaths.
Onek emphasized he was never given access to a lawyer or charged with a crime. He said during the five months he was imprisoned, he had no idea why he was there.
But now, he said he’s ready to move on.
“We do not want to dwell in the past, we want to go forward,” he said. He suggests it would help if the government could accept responsibility for its abuses and pay the families of those detained, “in a way admitting and saying, ‘All of us have sinned, let us forgive each other and let us move forward,’” Onek said.