NAIROBI, Kenya – More than 30 political detainees in South Sudan's most notorious prison face torture, starvation or death, according to a Danish man detained alongside them for over two months before being released in late November.
Henrik Tobiesen, a businessman and former United Nations de-mining worker who had lived in South Sudan for 11 years, told The Associated Press he was locked up for 67 days starting Sept. 16 in the National Security Service compound in the capital, Juba. He said he was arrested for losing his passport but was released after pressure from his government. He said NSS officials also accused him of being an American or U.N. spy, but he was never charged.
His account is one of the first to emerge from the compound, known locally as "Blue House" for its blue-tinted windows. Political detainees are held on the top floor, with suspected criminals below.
For the first time, Tobiesen confirmed that a South Sudanese rebel spokesman who vanished in early November after being deported from Kenya, despite having refugee status, is being held at the prison in solitary confinement. He saw James Gatdet walking with guards past his cell door.
The U.N. refugee agency and human rights groups protested Gatdet's deportation amid fears he would be tortured by government forces. Tobiesen could not confirm if Gatdet had been tortured, but for the first few nights after Gatdet's arrival, guards would take him away and return him hours later.
"That's bad news when people get picked in such a way," Tobiesen said. "They will come in and just switch off all the lights, just in the middle of the night, and then people just kinda hope it ain't gonna be you."
National Security Service media official Ramadan Chadar denied that Gatdet was in their custody. "Someone is lying to you," he said, and refused to answer further questions.
The detainees, who hail mainly from the southern Equatoria region, have been arrested during a worsening three-year civil war between the government of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and rebels supporting former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer who has fled the country.
Tens of thousands have died in the fighting, and U.N. officials have warned of possible genocide.
Information on the prison is hard to come by. South Sudan's government has blocked the U.N. from accessing it, said Shantal Persaud, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission there. "This has been a constant, ongoing issue," she said.
The government also has refused access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Nyagoah Tut, a South Sudan researcher for Amnesty International. The London-based rights group corroborated much of Tobiesen's account.
Amnesty International has named 35 political detainees in the prison who have not been charged, some of them jailed for over two years, based on accounts of those released.
Tobiesen confirmed that other high-profile prisoners are there, including U.N. radio journalist George Livio, arrested more than two years ago; Justin Wanis, a politician from the restive Western Equatoria state; and Timothy Nyewe, the former commissioner of Maban County in the northeast. All are accused of having links to Machar's rebels.
Another prisoner, retired South African army colonel William Endley, who has claimed to be Machar's security consultant, nearly starved to death before Tobiesen shared extra food brought to the prison by his church, Tobiesen said. Seeing Endley's condition, he abandoned plans of a hunger strike, realizing guards would not help him if he fell ill.
"They don't really care," he said, saying another prisoner died of an untreated illness. Endley's family corroborated parts of Tobiesen's account and shared a message from South Sudan's foreign ministry saying Endley was in NSS custody.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek told the AP that reports of political prisoners or illegal detention are "only stories" circulated on social media.
"There's nobody who is being tortured in South Sudan," he said.
Tobiesen says prisoners live in constant fear of torture.
Guards regularly pulled prisoners on the first floor out of their cells, lined them up face down and whipped them with a stick wrapped in hard rubber within earshot of the others.
"One guy got 30 lashes for talking to one of those so-called political prisoners, and you start screaming after five, so you can imagine," said Tobiesen, who was never lashed. He said the longtime political prisoners coached new arrivals on how to avoid such punishment.
Prisoners also have very little food, clean water, space or even sunlight. The 43-year-old Tobiesen said it was enough to "break" any new prisoner within weeks.
The cells become baking hot, up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), with only a slit near the ceiling for ventilation, Tobiesen said. Prisoners are allowed out once a week for an hour.
"You reach out from your bed one way, you touch one guy, you reach out the other direction and touch the other guy, and we were in the so-called 'VIP' one," Tobiesen said. The solitary cells of prisoners like Gatdet are less than an arms' length wide.
Guards provide no mattresses, sheets or mosquito nets, and prisoners sleep on the bare floor or on cardboard boxes if they can't smuggle in bedding by paying off guards. Tobiesen said he had malaria twice while inside.
Prisoners access clean drinking water just one hour a week, when they are allowed out to fill up plastic bottles that are smuggled in or bought from guards, he said. Those without bottles drink from showers and toilets sourced from a well contaminated with salt. For one 10-day period, the prisoners received no water, forcing everyone to drink the salty water.
Prisoners are fed once a day with a scoop of boiled beans and some maize meal, which Tobiesen said sometimes contains insects and is so foul it is inedible to many prisoners. Under such conditions, some prisoners vomited and urinated blood, and their feet swelled so much they could not walk, he said.
"These conditions amount to torture and other forms of ill treatment," said Tut, the Amnesty International researcher.
Tut called on South Sudan to release the prisoners or ensure that due process is observed, with prisoners charged, presented to court and given access to lawyers. "What the NSS is doing is a blatant disregard for national law and also human rights law."
Tobiesen, who has left South Sudan, said he felt an obligation to speak out to help those left behind.
"I feel super bad because I don't see them getting out any time soon," he said, "and I don't believe all of them are going to survive unless something is done."