NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya has forcibly deported a South Sudanese rebel spokesman and registered refugee back to his country over a Facebook posting, a family member and the United Nations said Friday, while colleagues feared for his life and the U.N. regretted that its efforts to stop his removal had failed.
Human rights groups immediately condemned Kenya's deportation on Thursday of James Gatdet Dak, calling it a breach of international law. He had a U.S. green card, said the family member, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Kenya's government.
"He became an inadmissible person, so we cancelled his visa and he was taken to his country of origin," Kenyan government spokesman Eric Kiraithe told The Associated Press.
Rebel leader Riek Machar, who fled South Sudan in July, pleaded with Kenya's deputy president not to deport Gatdet "due to profound fear for his life," Machar said in a statement. He said he told Kenyan officials that Gatdet was a refugee, and said the U.N. refugee agency "made serious efforts" to reverse Kenya's decision.
Fighting continues in South Sudan amid ethnic tensions, despite a fragile peace deal to end civil war.
The deportation came during a bitter dispute between Kenya and the United Nations over the U.N. secretary-general's firing of the Kenyan commander of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The U.N. forces were accused of responding poorly to attacks on civilians in July.
The Facebook posting by Gatdet, a spokesman for Machar, supported the Kenyan commander's firing.
Kenya has responded angrily to the firing, noting that Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki had been on the job for just three weeks when the July attacks occurred. Kenya has announced it is pulling its 1,000 peacekeepers from South Sudan and withdrawing from its peace process, in which it has played a key role as one of South Sudan's neighbors.
Human rights workers said the deportation of Gatdet was going too far, saying Kenya violated international law by deporting a registered refugee. Documents seen by the AP show that Gatdet was registered in Kenya as a refugee in August 2015.
"On top of this, he is now at risk of arbitrary detention and torture in the hands of South Sudanese government authorities," Elizabeth Deng, a South Sudan researcher at Amnesty International, told the AP.
"In colluding with South Sudan and deporting James Gatdet Dak, Kenya has exposed him to a serious risk of persecution," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Kenya is steadily shredding any pretense of respect for its fundamental refugee protection obligations."
South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, said he had no knowledge of Gatdet's whereabouts. He urged the U.N. to reverse the decision to fire the Kenyan commander and urged Kenya to keep its peacekeepers in the country and remain in the peace process.
According to the family member of Gatdet, he was arrested by South Sudanese national security officials when he landed in the capital, Juba.
"They tried to forcefully take (Gatdet) to the plane, and he struggled and refused to go, and the pilot refused to take him," the family member said of his departure from Kenya. "I am very much concerned. In the first place, I don't see a reason why he should be deported. He should have been taken to a different country."
Gatdet has a U.S. green card, the family member said.
In Geneva, U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said the agency was "deeply concerned" about Gatdet's well-being, calling his forced removal a violation of international law. She said the agency regrets that its interventions with Kenyan authorities to stop the "forced return" were unsuccessful.
Gatdet might have dual nationality, Pouilly told reporters, without giving details.
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and saw civil war break out in 2013 when government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir battled rebels led by his former vice president, Machar. Tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2 million displaced.
In three days of fighting in South Sudan's capital in July, at least 73 people were killed, including more than 20 internally displaced people who had sought U.N. protection, said a U.N. report released Tuesday. The report said "a lack of leadership on the part of key senior mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence." The firing of the Kenyan commander was announced shortly afterward.
Lynch reported from Juba, South Sudan. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.