Extrajudicial Killings in South Sudan: The Abduction and Execution of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri

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The War and Injustices

In December 2013, civil war broke out in South Sudan after President Salva Kiir – a member of the largest ethnic group in the country, the Dinka, and the leader of the ruling SPLM party – fired his then-vice president, Riek Machar, a member of the second-largest community, the Nuer. The result has been civil war, the death of hundreds of thousands and the mass displacement of millions of South Sudanese nationals over the years.

Obstructions from both civilian and armed actors affiliated with the SPLM/A have made peacekeeping and humanitarian operations difficult, a situation a 2019 UN Panel of Experts report describes as resulting from, “the policies and actions of SPLM/A in Government, which have involved both an increase in onerous bureaucratic restrictions and overt intimidation.”

According to Amnesty International, challengers of the South Sudan government, from activists to opposition members, have been threatened and intimidated by South Sudanese government sources, including the National Security Service (NSS) and Military Intelligence. This has happened both within and outside of the country’s borders.

Missing: Abducted and Deported

In August 2013, Dong Samuel Luak, a lawyer and human rights activist fled to Kenya after receiving threats from the South Sudanese government. While in Kenya, Dong continued to call out the injustices happening in his country, condemning the corruption, as well as human rights abuses of the government. Three and a half years later, he would go missing from Kenya’s capital.

Dong Samuel Luak

The Dream Bean House restaurant, located along Kaunda Street in Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), is the last location that Dong was seen before he went missing on 23rd January 2017. The restaurant’s CCTV footage captured his last moments in the area in the company of two people, Michael Kuajien, a South Sudanese intelligence officer, and Luke Thompson.

Dong left the restaurant that evening and was heading home to South C, a residential estate in Nairobi, but he never got there. Worried about his sudden disappearance, his family filed a missing person’s report the following day at the Industrial Area Police Station.

While this was happening, yet another South Sudanese citizen would go missing: Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the SPLM-In-Opposition (SPLM-IO) and a vocal government critic. Up until his disappearance, Aggrey had lived in Kenya for five years. Just like Dong, he too moved to Kenya in 2013, but on a visitor’s pass, after the conflict broke out in South Sudan.

According to his wife, Ayah Benjamin, Aggrey left their home at Valley Arcade, a neighbourhood in Nairobi, for a morning jog on 24th January 2017, but never came back. On the same day, the family filed a formal missing person’s report at two police stations, Muthangari Police Station and Kilimani Police Station.

According to court documents, the phone records availed to the police by Safaricom Limited, a Kenyan mobile network operator, show that Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri’s mobile numbers became inactive at the time they were reported to have disappeared.

At the time of his abduction from Kenya, Dong was a registered refugee in Kenya and was under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in Nairobi. Aggrey, on the other hand, had a valid visa to remain in Kenya and was in the process of seeking UNHCR protection in Nairobi.

Aggrey Ezbon Idri

According to Amnesty International, “the unwillingness and inaction to investigate the disappearances and whereabouts of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri by the South Sudanese government is an abdication of its binding legal obligations, demonstrates a total disregard for the men’s fundamental rights, and exacerbates their families’ concerns.”

This was not the first time that South Sudanese refugees were forcibly disappeared from Kenyan territory and illegally deported to South Sudan with help from the Kenyan government.

In November 2016, James Gatdet Dak, the spokesman for South Sudan’s political opposition at the time, was deported by Kenya to South Sudan. Gatdet would later be sentenced to death by hanging for treason but he was pardoned on 31st October 2018.

James Gatdet Dak’s account of his illegal deportation confirms collaboration between the highest levels of the Kenyan and South Sudanese governments. The forcible disappearance and return of the men to South Sudan, where they risk being tortured and experiencing other ill-treatment, violates international law, as well as regional and national Kenyan laws. Enforced disappearances and torture are both crimes under international law in all circumstances and may be subject to prosecution as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Missing: Timeline of events

23rd January 2017

Dong Samuel Luak disappears off the streets of Nairobi. He was last seen at Dream Bean House Restaurant on 23rd January 2017 at 8.31 p.m.

24th January 2017

Aggrey Ezbon Idri goes missing. The families of Dong and Aggrey report their mysterious disappearances.

25th and 26th January 2017

A prisoner, detained at the same time as dong and Aggrey in Blue House, has since revealed that he saw and spoke to Aggrey in Juba on these days. He stated that Dong and Aggrey arrived in Juba together and had been taken to Blue House, a National Security Service (NSS) detention centre.

Dong was held at the ground floor while Aggrey was housed on the upper floor of the detention centre.

His description of events indicates that Dong and Aggrey were already in Juba on the 25th and 26th of January, 2017. However, a 2019 UN Panel of Experts report confirms that the two men arrived in Juba on 27th January 2017.

Despite these discrepancies, the prisoner and the UN report both confirm that Dong and Aggrey had been detained on separate floors at the Blue House centre. Dong was held downstairs in the criminal section while Aggrey was held upstairs in the political detainees’ section.

27th January 2017

A Kenyan court rules against the deportation of Dong Samuel and Aggrey Idri to South Sudan. However, according to multiple reports from international organizations, the two individuals had already been moved to Juba and had been seen in the custody of the National Security Service (NSS) by the time of the ruling. The UN Panel of Experts report published in 2019 revealed that Dong and Aggrey were transported from Kenya in a chartered commercial plane on 27th January 2017 by the Internal Security Bureau of South Sudan’s NSS with the help of the Embassy of South Sudan in Nairobi.

Credible sources, including the UN Panel of Experts report, have since disclosed that, on the same day, Dong and Aggrey were moved from Blue House detention centre to another National Security Service facility in Luri, which is part of a ranch and military compound owned by Salva Kiir.

30th January 2017

Three days after their transfer from Blue House, Dong and Aggrey were executed by Internal Security Bureau agents at the Luri facility.  This was confirmed by a UN Panel of Experts on 1st May 2019.

 

Throughout the period that Dong and Aggrey were missing, the Government of South Sudan continued to deny having any knowledge of their whereabouts, as well as that they were in South Sudan. This was despite reports from multiple sources, including international human rights organizations and media outlets reporting that Dong and Aggrey were abducted in Nairobi by members of the South Sudanese security services and brought back to Juba.

According to Amnesty International, since South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, the NSS has arbitrarily detained dozens of perceived opponents, often torturing and ill-treating them with electric shocks, beatings, and harsh conditions. Authorities have also been responsible for enforced disappearances, as part of their campaign against those perceived to be government opponents.

Who Is Responsible for the Forced Disappearance of Luak and Aggrey?

On 10th December 2019, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action against 18 individuals located in Burma, Pakistan, Libya, Slovakia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and South Sudan for their roles in serious human rights abuse, including against five individuals responsible for the abduction and murder of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri.

On 9th January 2020, the U.S. Treasury also sanctioned the First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai (Deng), for his involvement in serious human rights abuse, including the disappearance and deaths of civilians.

Additionally, a 2019 UN Panel of Experts report, Kenyan court documents, media reports, and several sources close to Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri reveal a number of individuals and institutions were part of their illegal abductions, deportation and execution.

John Top Lam

John Top Lam, a South Sudanese intelligence officer was one of the individuals involved in the disappearance of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri.

Court documents reveal that Dong’s family submitted an affidavit stating that one John Top Lam was involved in his disappearance. The affidavits also disclose that John Top Lam had called Dong’s brother, Polit James, in relation to his disappearance. According to call transcripts availed in court, Lam “appears to insinuate that he had knowledge of the whereabouts of both Dong and Aggrey and would avail the information if he was facilitated with the sum of USD 10,000 (Kshs 1 Million).”

In September 2017, the Daily Beast, an American news and opinion website, reported that, in addition to soliciting a bribe, John Top Lam also implied that the USD 10,000 was for the head of Kenya’s intelligence service, Major-General Philip Wachira Kameru.

After investigations by the Kenyan police, Mr Lam recorded a statement and swore an affidavit denying the allegations made by Dong’s family that he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the two missing South Sudanese nationals. It is unclear whether the money he requested was ever paid out.

Credible sources with direct knowledge of the case identify John Top Lam as a close associate of First Vice President Taban Deng Gai.

Colonel Michael Kuajien Duer

Colonel Michael Kuajien Duer, a South Sudanese intelligence officer, was also involved in the kidnapping of Dong and Aggrey. According to subsequent court proceedings and the UN Panel of Experts, Kuajien is believed to have played a direct role in the abduction of Dong Samuel. In 2019, the Daily Nation, a Kenya newspaper, citing an affidavit filed in Kenyan court, reported that, “Mr Michael Kuajien, in a recorded phone conversation, now part of the court filings, together with John Top Lam, claim[ed] that the two missing men were in the custody of Kenyan intelligence agents.”

According to another affidavit, Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations “put the blame back on Mr Kuajien who the police accused of having a hand in the kidnapping and deportation of Dong and Aggrey.”

According to other documents obtained by The Sentry, Kuajien was also involved in the negotiations of weapons deals for the SPLM-IO during the early stages of the South Sudanese Civil war, which erupted in December 2013.

Brigadier General Abud Stephen Thiongkol and Brigadier General Malual Dhal Muorwel

It is very likely that agents of the Internal Security Bureau were involved in the execution of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri at the National Security Service facility in Luri. The chain of command for execution orders included the Director-General of the Internal Security Bureau of the National Security Service, Akol Koor; Commander of the National Security Service training and detention facilities in Luri, Malual Dhal Muorwel; and the Commander of the National Security Service Central Division, Abud Stephen Thiongkol.

Operating on orders from both NSS Central Division Commander Abud Stephen Thiongkol and Director General of Internal Security Bureau Akol Koor, the NSS commander in charge of the Luri facility, Malual Dhal Muorwel, ordered the execution of both Dong and Aggrey on 30th January.

Brigadier General Napoleon Adok Gai

Brig. Gen. Napoleon Adok Gai also played a key role in the abduction of Dong and Aggrey. Napoleon Adok Gai has served as the Director of Cyber Security in the Office of the President and is an apparent associate of Michael Kuajien. He has in the past been found to have illegally spied on several people suspected to voice any criticism or dissent against the South Sudanese government. He has also been involved in digital surveillance operations conducted by South Sudanese intelligence services in Kenya. On May 27, 2017, the Court of Appeal in South Sudan ruled that “the use of a particular wiretapping device relied on by Adok in Kenya, acquired from Israel was unconstitutional and in violation of Article 22 of the South Sudan constitution.”

In addition to his title at the Office of the President, Gen. Napoleon is also identified as the head of National Security Service phone monitoring headquarters, the Aquilla Center. According to an article by The Sudan Tribune, “the Aquilla Center has been used as an operation base for the National Security Service, where they have monitored phone communications of citizens with rebellious voices, political leaders, opposition lawmakers, and civil society activists.”

Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc

The April 2019 UN Panel of Experts report on South Sudan confirmed that the abduction and execution orders for Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri came from Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc.

Akol Koor, the Director-General of the Internal Security Bureau of the National Security Service is also affiliated with other roles in the South Sudanese government. He has served on the board of Nile Petroleum (NILEPET), South Sudan’s main state-owned oil company.

In 2016, just a year before Dong and Aggrey were abducted and forcefully deported from Kenya, a UN report on South Sudan stated that “Gen. Akol Koor Kuc is one of a narrow circle of senior individuals in the military and security services who were waging an aggressive war involving the targeting of civilians and extensive destruction of communities.” The Panel also found what they called “clear and convincing evidence…that most of the acts of violence committed during the war by the government and government-affiliated forces…had been undertaken with the knowledge of individuals at the highest level of government, including Akol, the Director-General of the NSS’s Internal Security Bureau.”

The UN Panel also found the existence of two small killing squads under the command of Gen. Akol referred to as ‘Inside Tiger’ and ‘Outside Tiger.’ They are alleged to have carried out a number of targeted killings in recent years, including of journalists and civil society activists in South Sudan, as well as of perceived critics and political opponents seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

The National Security Service/Internal Security Bureau (NSS/ISB)

Dong and Aggrey’s whereabouts remained publicly uncertain until April 2019, when the UN Panel of Experts released a report stating they had “corroborated evidence strongly suggesting that the two South Sudanese nationals were kidnapped in Kenya by the Internal Security Bureau of South Sudan, which is part of National Security Service. The Internal Security Bureau team transported Dong and Aggrey from Kenya to Juba in a charted commercial plane on 27th January 2017, with the help of the Embassy of South Sudan in Nairobi.”

Once in Juba, Dong and Aggrey were taken to the Blue House detention centre where they were detained before being moved to an NSS Training Facility in Luri, where they were eventually executed on 30th January 2017.

According to a 2016 UN Panel Experts report, “The [Internal Security] Bureau, under Akol Koor, at the time of writing the report was holding at least 50 individuals in a detention site at its headquarters in Juba, together with an unknown number of suspects at a site located close to the River Nile in Juba. Detainees are subjected to beatings and other forms of inhuman or degrading treatment.” The Panel also found that it was “probable that the Service is responsible for setting up a dedicated team that carries out targeted assassinations, mostly in Juba, who have become widely known as the ‘unknown gunmen.”

The UN Panel of Experts concluded that “the National Security Service and the Internal Security Bureau in particular…act outside the rule of law and official state structures.”

First Vice President Taban Deng Gai

Several individuals close to Dong Samuel and sources with links to the office of the First Vice President believe that Deng was ultimately responsible for ordering Dong and Aggrey’s abduction and execution.

Other sources cite threats made by Taban Deng Gai to Dong Samuel Luak in 2016 as support for his alleged involvement in the abduction.

According to the US Department of the Treasury, Taban Deng Gai, “reportedly arranged and directed the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak (Dong) and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idri (Aggrey).  He directed these actions in order to solidify his position within President Kiir’s government and to intimidate members of the SPLM-IO.”

Conclusion

For two years, the families of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri continued to seek judicial help in searching for their loved ones and the truth about what happened to them. However, on 17th January 2019, a Kenyan High Court officially ended its investigations into the disappearances of the two South Sudanese nationals.

Despite three years elapsing since the deaths of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, the South Sudanese government has shown no indications of holding the individuals involved, or any others, to account, and has not taken any corrective measures since the publication in April 2019 of the UN Panel of Experts report.

According to Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch, “The UN experts panel’s finding that Dong and Aggrey were most likely murdered days after their abduction while family and friends were stonewalled by Kenyan and South Sudanese authorities shows shocking cruelty.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented the South Sudanese government’s arbitrary arrest and detention of perceived opponents in official and unofficial NSS facilities across the country, where they are often held for months to years without charges, and without access to proper food, sanitation, medical care, or legal representation.

“Kenya and South Sudan failed miserably in their duty of care toward Dong and Aggrey,” Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn, and Great Lakes Region is quoted saying. “Both governments must end the blanket denials now, tell the families and the world what exactly happened to the two men and bring those responsible to account.”

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Joy Kirigia

Joy Kirigia is a journalist with Africa Uncensored. She has an interest in and reports on matters health, education and governance. She holds a BA in Journalism from the Multimedia University and has been actively practicing journalism since 2016.