Delayed verdict in South Sudan’s deadly hotel rampage

JUBA, South Sudan — Months have passed since the trial of a dozen South Sudanese soldiers accused of gang-raping foreigners and killing a local journalist in a July 2016 rampage, and both the defence and prosecution say they are frustrated by the indefinitely postponed verdict said to be waiting in the office of President Salva Kiir.

Victims say they feel forgotten, while the lawyer for the detained soldiers says his clients’ rights are being violated while the verdict is delayed without apparent reason.

“It seems that the international community, South Sudan’s government and the organizations involved have forgotten about this horrible incident,” the Italian aid worker who was the only foreign survivor to testify in person told The Associated Press. “I had hoped this trial could have created a precedent for these types of horrific crimes.” She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The trial began a year ago in military court for the soldiers accused of raping five foreign aid workers, assaulting others and killing journalist John Gatluak while forcing the foreigners to watch during an attack on the Terrain hotel compound in July 2016 while renewed fighting erupted in the capital, Juba.

The attack was detailed in an AP investigation , with the United States and others expressing outrage.

The trial ended in January, with the verdict expected a month later.

If convicted of rape, the soldiers could face up to 14 years in prison. If found guilty of murder, they could be sentenced to death. They have pleaded not guilty.

South Sudan’s government, long criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups for a lack of accountability during the country’s five-year civil war, has pointed to the Terrain trial as a sign of its “commitment to human rights, the rule of law and the transparency of the legal system,” as deputy army spokesman Santo Domic Chol said last year.

The test of accountability, however, has stalled without explanation.

“We have no information for why it’s not moving forward and I’m worried that it’s taking so long,” the lawyer for the victims, Phillips Anyang Ngong, told the AP.

The lawyer for the accused, Peter Malual Deng Lual, called the delay a violation of his clients’ right to a speedy trial. “It would be good if we had a verdict as some of them might be freed,” he said.

Throughout the trial, conditions inside the military prison have been questioned by both the prosecution and the defence. In October, one of the accused soldiers died in custody. The army said it was due to illness.

South Sudan’s army says former military chief James Ajongo Mawut signed off on the verdict before he died in April. The paperwork is sitting with the office of the commander-in-chief, said army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang. He said he couldn’t confirm whether the president had seen it.

The president’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said he had no idea about the status of the verdict.

South Sudan’s criminal procedure code says every accused person has the right to a fair trial where justice shall not be delayed.

“The delay is unconstitutional,” local human rights lawyer Taban Romano told the AP.

The defence lawyer said his hands are tied because as a military lawyer he has to abide by the chain of command, which means he speaks only to the army spokesman who relays the message to the president.

Meanwhile, the victims of the Terrain rampage are calling on the international community to apply pressure to move things forward.

The United States, which provided technical and logistical support for the trial, said it remains committed to seeking justice for the victims.

The U.S. continues to “call on the government of South Sudan to hold accountable all those individuals responsible for the violent attacks that have killed and displaced thousands of South Sudanese,” embassy spokesman Mark Weinberg said.

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