The South Sudanese government has released seven of the 11 high-ranking political figures who were detained shortly after unrest erupted in Juba last month, but said the four others could be tried for treason.
The seven who were released -- Deng Alor Kuol, Gier Chuang, Kosti Manibe, Chol Tong Mayay, Cirino Hiteng, Madut Biar Yel and John Luk Jok -- were handed over to the custody of the authorities in Kenya.
South Sudanese presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said they will be held on bail in Kenya as an investigation continues into their role in what President Salva Kiir said was a failed coup bid on Dec. 15 that kicked off nearly six weeks of fighting that claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 850,000.
Kiir has said the clashes in Juba on Dec. 15 that triggered violence across the country were an attempt to oust him led by former vice president Riek Machar, who went into hiding when the unrest broke out.
South Sudan Justice Minister Paulino Wanawilla said government investigators have found enough evidence to charge Machar and six others, including the four detainees who were not released, with treason.
“We found that, yes, for us, what has been alleged against those people is chargeable under a particular section of our Penal Code Act 2008... Anybody who intends to change a constitutional government or to suspend the constitution or abrogate the constitution by means of force, commits treason," Wanawilla said.
The detainees and Machar have denied any involvement in what Kiir has insisted was a failed coup bid.
The four men still in detention are Pag’an Amum Okiech, who served as secretary general of the ruling SPLM party; former deputy defense minister Majak D'Agoot; Oyai Deng Ajak, former national security minister, and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who served as head of the government liaison office in the United States.
Three others are expected to be tried in absentia for treason. They are former vice president Machar, former Unity State governor Taban Deng Gai, and Alfred Lado Gore, former environment minister.
Wanawilla said the evidence the government has against the seven suspected of committing treason includes a map of military operations and the names and phone numbers of all the officers who were running divisions around the country.
“I think that there is enough case to take them before the court. Now, because three of them are at large, the four who are under detention now, we believe that they are going to be answerable for the coup before the court,” Wanawilla said.
The release of the 11 detainees was a key demand of opposition negotiators at peace talks in Addis Ababa.
Last week, the South Sudan government and its opponents signed two agreements after weeks of talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
The agreements called for an immediate cessation of hostilities
and for the release of the political detainees to be expedited
, to allow them to take part in the next round of talks for South Sudan, which is due to get under way on Feb. 7.
U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the release of the seven political detainees "an important step toward an inclusive political dialogue under the auspices of IGAD" and urged the South Sudanese government to "release the remaining four."
"As South Sudan's leaders work to fully implement the agreement, we're encouraging them to focus on starting an inclusive political dialogue to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict," Psaki said.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also hailed the release of the seven detainees, and said regional leaders will "continue our conversation" with Kiir about the four still being held.
"Together we will also discuss how best to establish the urgently needed monitoring and verification mechanism provided for in the cessation of hostilities agreement signed on the 23rd of January this year,” Kenyatta said.
After arriving in Nairobi on Wednesday, former Justice Minister John Luk Jok said he and the others, who were held for more than a month, were saddened by the "tragic situation" in South Sudan, where international officials believe thousands have died in six weeks of fighting.
"We don't feel bitter, we don’t feel that our president is our enemy, not at all," Luk said.
"We are his people. We are all feeling sad about the tragic situation that has happened in our country... it is first and foremost our national duty to see that we restore our country to normalcy," he said.
Lucy Poni reported from Nairobi, and Andrew Green from Juba for this story.