South Sudan regime cracking down on critics

Opposition leaders and newspaper editors see as a growing tendency by South Sudan's ruling party to exert totalitarian control over the country as the economy suffers and a conflict with Sudan worsens.

James Okuk, 34, who works for the South Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was arrested for writing critical newspaper pieces that constituted "offending the president".
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JUBA // James Okuk was in Brazil, looking into property for an embassy on behalf of the new nation of South Sudan, when he received a call warning him not to come home.
"Don't take the flight," his friend in the government told him last October. "They are going to arrest you."
Mr Okuk, 34, returned anyway "to see what this was all about" and was arrested five hours after his arrival on October 21 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he works in the real estate department.
Police officers, one of whom Mr Okuk said pointed a cocked pistol at him when he asked whether they had a warrant, took him to an abandoned house for four days. There he learnt the charge: a series of critical articles he had written constituted "offending the president".
He was held for another two weeks in a prison before being released on bail of 100,000 South Sudanese pounds (Dh137,161). The case is continuing, with a hearing adjourned last month because he was the only one to show up.
Mr Okuk's arrest is part of what opposition leaders and newspaper editors in Juba see as a growing tendency by the ruling party to exert totalitarian control over the country as the economy suffers and a conflict with the north rages along the border.
As much as the official case of Mr Okuk cites only five articles he wrote as evidence of a crime, members of Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement - Democratic Change party (SPLM-DC) see it as a veiled political move. Mr Okuk's uncle is Lam Akol, a former rebel leader who broke away from South Sudan's dominant political party, the SPLM, to create SPLM-DC in 2009. Mr Akol was the only other contender for the presidency of South Sudan in the 2010 elections.
"This is how politics is done in the newest African country," said Sisto Olur Erista, the acting secretary general of the SPLM-DC. "They want to silence voices critical of the regime."
In the past several weeks, the relations between the SPLM and SPLM-DC have become worse as the conflict between South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan to the north has escalated. Hundreds have been killed on either side of what the South Sudan military spokesman called a "limited border war" over land rights, alleged support for militias and oil.
President Salva Kiir, who is also the head of the SPLM, publicly accused the SPLM-DC of supporting rebels who had attacked Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army from across a river in the South Sudan city of Malakal on April 27.
The SPLM-DC held news conference Wednesday, denying the charges and accusing the government of trying to build a case that the party had an armed wing, which would lead it to be deregistered under the political party law.
Officials said the party stands behind the government and the army, particularly as the Republic of Sudan continues bombing South Sudan villages. But it believes decisions are being made without proper planning, such as shutting off the oil earlier this year because of a dispute over transit fees to be paid by South Sudan for pumping crude through a pipeline in Sudan's territory.
"What is our plan now that we don't have any revenue coming into the government?" Mr Erista said. "I don't question that something had to be done, but how will we run the country without funds. It's a question of national planning and leadership."
Complicating the situation is that Mr Akol, the leader of the party, is in Khartoum where officials say he is living while his children are finishing school. The fact that the head of the opposition party is living in the capital of the country many South Sudanese consider their enemy has not sat easily with many citizens in the south. Juba is rife with rumours of his treason.
The repression of critical voices has not just included members of the opposition party. Journalists say they have found an increasingly hostile atmosphere for their writing. One western adviser to a radio station said the situation "has become very tense now".
Ngor Garang, a 28-year-old journalist, said he was detained for 18 days in November after the defunct Destiny newspaper he was editing published an opinion piece about the wedding of the president's daughter to an Ethiopian. In tribal culture, marriages to foreigners are considered anathema.
The op-ed said "this wedding is a demonstration that foreigners have not only monopolised our market, economy and robbed our integrity after penetrating it, but it is also a demonstration that they have taken over our national pride".
But instead of a civil libel case against the newspaper, several staff members were arrested. The paper was shut down after its first issue.
Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the minister for information and broadcasting, denied in an interview that there was a pattern of arrests of journalists. He said that there were "isolated" cases of journalists who were arrested for committing a crime unrelated to their work and then complaining it was politically motivated.
"In South Sudan, there have been no cases of journalists killed," he said. "This is a good record compared to other countries."
Aside from criticism of the president, the problem for journalists is trying to investigate corruption, said Nhial Bol, editor of the The Citizen, who has been arrested six times since South Sudan became independent last year.
"Lately, we cannot engage in investigative journalism," he said. "But we are still finding stories. The ministers come to us when they have disputes with each other. They bring documents about their rivals' crimes. We're part of the game now."
Standing on a dirt road outside his favourite cafe in Juba, Mr Okuk said he had one last thing to say.
"I'll get through this case, but the problem is bigger," he said. "If there is no freedom of speech in our new country, there will be no development. It will only get worse from here."
 
bhope@thenational.ae

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