By Katharine Houreld
NAIROBI (Reuters) - A Kenyan court said on Wednesday that the state did not have custody of two South Sudanese activists missing from Nairobi, stoking suspicions among other opposition supporters that they may be detained by Juba's security agents.
Human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and writer Aggrey Idri Ezibon, both supporters of South Sudan's opposition, went missing from the Kenyan capital within hours of each other on Jan. 23 and 24.
After they disappeared, their families filed a case in Kenya to stop a possible deportation back to South Sudan after other opposition figures were sent home.
But Kenyan state lawyers said the men were not in Kenyan custody. The judge ruled "the applicants' disappearance can only be ... abduction".
Oil-rich South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, plunged into war in 2013, when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Machar fled after a shaky peace deal collapsed in July and fighting has increasingly split the country along ethnic lines. Parts of the country are suffering from famine and more than 3 million South Sudanese have fled their homes.
Many opposition figures, including Luak and Ezibon, sought refuge in other East African countries.
But regional powers became less welcoming to Machar's supporters after the rebellion split and one of Machar's former colleagues, Taban Deng Gai, joined the government in July, said Casie Copeland, senior analyst for South Sudan at Brussels-based thinktank International Crisis Group.
Since then, Machar's supporters have faced curbs on their political activities in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, she said.
In November, Kenya deported James Gatdet Dak, Machar’s main spokesman, back to Juba.
A man previously imprisoned at the headquarters of South Sudan's National Security Services told Reuters he saw Gatdet there. The former inmate, who asked not to be named, said torture was rife and prisoners malnourished.
The South Sudanese government did not return calls seeking comment. It have not confirmed Gatdet is in custody.
A South Sudanese rights activist based in Uganda, Peter Gai Manyuon, told Reuters on Wednesday that a friend in the South Sudanese security services had told him that agents wanted to kidnap him and another activist.
They blamed Manyuon and Luak for a report detailing the wealth of South Sudanese officials, he said.
Aya Benjamin, Ezibon's wife, said she feared others may go missing. Three opposition leaders had fled Kenya, she said.
"I'm not safe anywhere except home. I hope peace comes in South Sudan so I can go home," she said.
Another Nairobi-based opposition activist who asked not to be identified named five prominent opposition figures who left Kenya in recent months.
"Some were called from an anonymous number and warned," he said. Their circle feared Luak and Ezibon had either been secretly deported to Juba by Kenya or kidnapped by South Sudan, he said.
Kenyan police and foreign office officials did not return calls seeking comment.
(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Editing by Alison Williams)