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South Sudanese police detain newspaper editor without charge

By Hereward Holland

JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan's police have detained a newspaper editor without charge and refused him access to a lawyer for three days, he told a Reuters reporter who visited him in a crowded police cell on Saturday.

Rights groups frequently accuse security forces of harassing and illegally detaining journalists in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan almost two years ago after more than two decades of civil war.

Michael Koma, managing editor at the Juba Monitor, said he was arrested on Thursday and was being held in lieu of the chief editor, Alfred Taban, who was in Kenya.

"They're holding me here illegally on the behalf of Alfred," Koma told Reuters from behind bars in his police cell in the capital Juba, which he shared with four other men.

Koma said he was arrested after his newspaper printed a statement by the ethnic Nuer community accusing the deputy interior minister of involvement in the murder of a traffic policeman in late March.

Koma said the article ran under his byline, and he did not seek comment from deputy interior minister Salva Mathok Gengdit.

The interior ministry and police were not immediately available for comment, but Gengdit has strongly denied the charges in the local press.

"There's no access to toilet facilities, only a plastic bottle," Koma said when police let a Reuters journalist visit him in his cell. Officers later confiscated the reporter's pad containing notes from the interview.

South Sudan's ruling party is broadly made up of former guerrilla fighters from the 1983-2005 civil war, with little experience of civilian rule. The country has no state body mandated to regulate the media, and the parliament has yet to pass key media bills to regulate the industry.

Security forces engage in de facto censorship through harassment and illegal detentions, according to a joint statement on Friday by several rights groups including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch.

An outspoken commentator and columnist was killed outside his home in December by unknown gunmen. Two other journalists who wrote about his death received threats and fled the country.

This year, South Sudan dropped 12 places in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, to 124th out of 180 countries ranked.

(Reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Mark Trevelyan)

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