JUBA — Four South Sudanese politicians walked free on Friday after spending more than four months in detention for allegedly taking part in what the government has said was a failed December coup that tipped the country into months of bloodletting.
Women ululated and men sang revolutionary songs after Justice James Alala Deng announced that former SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum, former security minister Oyay Deng Ajak, former deputy defense minister Majok D'Agot Atem, and former envoy for southern Sudan to the United States, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, were free men.
As they left the courtroom, the four men were hoisted onto the shoulders of supporters and relatives of the former political figures shed tears of joy.
Amum expressed his gratitude to "our friends who stood behind us during the long period of our unjustified incarceration; to all our friends who stood by us... and demanded that we be released."
President Salva Kiir said in a news conference that he ordered the release of the four to help speed up the peace process in South Sudan. Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said Kiir had come under pressure from regional leaders to set the four men free.
But Amum said he and his colleagues were released because the government's case against them had fallen apart -- because it was fabricated to begin with.
"The truth is, the government of South Sudan had arrested us and put us in prison without any reason," Amum said.
"They presented our case in court and when we went to court, it became clear that the government had no case against us -- they didn't have evidence against us and the whole thing was just fabricated," he said.
"That’s why they took this preemptive step of withdrawing the case," Amum said.
Several key prosecution witnesses failed to show up in court, and some of the witnesses who did testify for the prosecution said they had no evidence to indicate that the four men had anything to do with the violence that broke out in Juba on Dec. 15 and spread around the country, including to Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, where fighting is still continuing.
The four intend now to help to restore peace in South Sudan, Amum said.
"We will be engaging both the government and SPLM/SPLA-in-Opposition to end this senseless war that is killing our people," Amum said.
Thousands of people are thought to have died in the fighting in South Sudan and international humanitarian organizations have warned that many thousands more will die of hunger and disease if the clashes continue.
Defense lawyer Monyluak Alor expressed his delight at the four being freed, and said justice has been served with their release.
“We have consistently been saying these are innocent people," he said.
"With the government at least withdrawing the case, we have seen that, at last... the government has seen reason and sense and the value of these individuals contributing to peace in the country,” Alor said, adding that he hopes the release of the four men will help the reconciliation process in South Sudan.
Andrew Green contributed to this report.