Prisoners in South Sudan often languish for years in “dire conditions” before going to trial, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
About a third of South Sudan’s approximately 6,000 prisoners haven’t been convicted of an offence and remain detained while they wait for their cases to be processed, Human Rights Watch said today in an e-mailed statement. The organization said its researchers interviewed more than 250 inmates and legal authorities over a 10-month period.
“Judges pass long sentences and even condemn to death people who, without legal assistance, were unable to understand the nature of charges against them or to call and prepare witnesses in their defense,” Human Rights Watch said.
Landlocked South Sudan, one of Africa’s poorest regions, gained independence in July following decades of conflict with the north. Its 79 prisons are overcrowded and unhygenic, Human Rights Watch said, citing the death of at least 15 people due to disease last year in just two facilities. Inmates reported routine beatings with sticks and whips, it said.
The group said its researchers found that many prisoners were detained for activities that were not illegal, such as adultery, while others were held to compel family members suspected of crimes to turn themselves in.
About 90 people are imprisoned because they appear to have mental disabilities, according to Human Rights Watch.
Justice Minister John Luk Jok and Rodento Tongun, a public relations officer from the prisons service, had their phones switched off, while Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
“I think right away there should be a legal notice from the Ministry of Justice that prisoners who have not been charged should be set free,” Victor Lowilla, a senior legal aid attorney with the South Sudan Law Society, said yesterday by phone from Juba, the capital.
Lowilla said government salaries for public prosecutors are so low that most qualified lawyers go into private practice. Prosecutors and members of “traditional courts” that operate in much of the country need training, he said.