JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
“I was terrified … I knew that I was heading for a terrible situation.” For the first time, the spokesman for South Sudan’s armed opposition leader has spoken out about his alleged kidnapping in neighboring Kenya, deportation to his home country and death sentence.
James Gatdet Dak, one of the highest-profile detainees during South Sudan’s five-year civil war, spoke to The Associated Press shortly after his pardon and release under a fragile peace deal signed in September. Now in neighboring Sudan while seeking asylum in Sweden, he says he is ready to have his story told.
His account, which has been shared with a United Nations commission of inquiry, asserts that high-level Kenyan authorities collaborated with South Sudan’s government to seize him from his Nairobi home in November 2016 and force him onto a plane for deportation to a country where he feared for his life.
At a detention facility near the Nairobi airport, a high-ranking Kenyan police officer told him there had been a deal between the presidents of Kenya and South Sudan. “There’s no way they’re going to help you,” Dak said, recalling the officer’s words.
Soft-spoken and one of the most trusted colleagues of opposition leader Riek Machar, Dak had fled to Kenya shortly after the civil war began in late 2013.
When Dak was seized, he said, Kenyan authorities told him he was being deported because of his statement supporting the dismissal of the Kenyan force commander for South Sudan’s U.N. peacekeeping mission. The U.N. had been sharply criticized for not acting quickly to protect the Terrain hotel complex from a deadly rampage by South Sudanese soldiers in July 2016.
Dak said he resisted boarding the plane to South Sudan, pleading for help from a flight attendant at the Nairobi airport.
″(I told her) I’m press secretary for a rebel leader who’s fighting that government and these people are kidnapping me,” he said. She prevented him from leaving, but Dak said Kenyan national security officers forced him onto an afternoon flight, warning that if he struggled he’d be handcuffed and carried onboard.
He didn’t fight back, Dak said. “I thought it was meaningless to resist.”
Machar’s frantic calls for assistance to Kenya’s deputy president and attorney general were futile, Dak said. An opposition member who saw Dak detained at the airport confirmed that Machar, then based in South Africa, made the calls but to no avail. The opposition member spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Kenya’s government spokesman, Eric Kiraithe, would not comment on Dak’s case but said Kenya is committed to making sure “peace was accelerated” in its neighbor.
South Sudan’s government denied any collaboration with Kenya in the case. Dak was detained on arrival for fueling the conflict with a Facebook post he made when fresh fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in July 2016, government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said. The post alleged that President Salva Kiir had attempted to arrest Machar, his deputy at the time, at the presidential palace.
Dak said he spent two years behind bars, including almost 10 months in solitary confinement in a national security prison. Locked in a tiny, dark cell 24 hours a day, he said he lost more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) on a daily meal of beans and porridge.
He said he maintained his sanity by reading the Bible and trying not to dwell on whether he would be killed. He said he went months before gaining access to a lawyer, who quit during his trial while calling the process unfair.
Fifteen months into his prison term, Dak was charged with treason and sentenced to death.
The peace deal saved him. Two years to the day after he said he was kidnapped in Nairobi, he was released with another opposition member, William Endley, a South African former defense colonel. Machar had demanded that all political detainees be released, per the terms of the peace deal, before he would return to South Sudan.
And yet many political prisoners remain behind bars without charge. Two other opposition figures who disappeared from Kenya, lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and government critic Aggrey Ezbon Idri, went missing from Nairobi two years ago. Both were last seen in a South Sudan national security prison, Human Rights Watch said last month.
The U.N. commission on human rights in South Sudan said it remains deeply concerned by the “complicity of the governments of Kenya and South Sudan” in the unlawful removal and transfer of Dak, chairwoman Yasmin Sooka told the AP last month. Dak has given the commission a detailed report of his ordeal but said that for now he is not taking legal action.
Currently in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the 45-year-old father of five is waiting to be reunited in Sweden with the family he hasn’t seen in years.
While Dak said he is grateful for his freedom, he doesn’t feel safe after receiving threats from South Sudan government loyalists that if he criticizes the government it could all happen again. He is taking a break from politics while deciding what to do next.
Despite the harrowing experience, he said he has no regrets.
“It was worth it,” Dak said. “What I was doing I believed was good for the country, it was good for the people of South Sudan, because we need change.”