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South Sudan Urged to Free More Prisoners Over Virus Fears

FILE - FILE - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir.
FILE - FILE - South Sudan's President Salva Kiir.

With the threat of the coronavirus infecting thousands of prisoners held in extremely overcrowded South Sudanese facilities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the country’s prison authorities to release pretrial detainees and prisoners who have served most of their terms.

According to HRW, the country’s prisons and detention sites are overcrowded, unsanitary, and have inadequate medical care: the perfect breeding ground for spreading the pandemic.

Closing the borders, imposing a travel ban, and suspending all mass gatherings are all positive moves taken by the government to control the spread of coronavirus, said HRW researcher in South Sudan, Nyagoah Tut Pur, but prisoners are still at great risk of becoming infected.

Many of them sleep in overcrowded hallways on single mattresses, increasing the risk of infection. Prison authorities should ease overcrowding by releasing non-violent prisoners, Tut said.

“Those who are in pretrial detention for non-violence and less offenses, they should consider older people, older prisoners as well as prisoners with underlining conditions and prisoners with disabilities and those who do not pose a general risk to the public,” Tut told South Sudan in Focus.

She also suggested that detention facilities run by the National Security Service (NSS) be closed.

“Beyond prisons we have also focused on National Security Service detentions because the NSS do not have the constitutional mandate to detain civilians, but they still do. And now we have called on the government to ensure those unlawfully detained by NSS are released and that NSS facilities are shut down,” Tut told VOA.

General Henry Kuany Aguar, director general for the National Prison Service, said he distributed a circular to the states, recommending that prison authorities release a few dozen prisoners who have been neither investigated nor convicted. Kuany also recommended that juvenile detainees and prisoners with six months or less remaining on their sentence be released.

“We requested them to [get] bail, they can be bailed. They are not convicted, they are not investigated, nothing proves somebody is innocent or convicted, so we are requesting let these people be bailed,” Aguar told South Sudan in Focus.

Even if all those prisoners were released, the number would be a small fraction of the 7,000 held in state prisons nationwide. Only President Salva Kiir has the ultimate power to decide if more prisoners will be set free.

Major General Anthony Oliver Lege, spokesperson for the National Prison Service, insists prison authorities are implementing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We make sure that we avoid coming together even though the nature of the prisons of course they will stay in one place but we are trying to say to them the value of social distancing is very important,” Lege told South Sudan in Focus.

South Sudan also ended prison visitation hours to control the spread of the pandemic.

Prison authorities in the Unity state capital Bentiu as well as in Yirol and Yei have released some prisoners to ease overcrowding, according to Lege.