A South Sudanese army officer who oversaw soldiers accused of killing a journalist and raping at least five international aid workers last year has died in his jail cell, according to the army.
First Lieutenant Luka Akechak was found dead in his cell more than a week ago, but his death was reported Friday.
Army spokesman Colonel Santo Domic said there was no sign of foul play in Akechak’s death.
"Luka Akechak died. He died of natural causes,” Domic told VOA's South Sudan in Focus. He said no post-mortem report was given to the army.
Akechak was a chief suspect in the case, which has highlighted the difficulty of bringing accused perpetrators of human rights violations to justice in South Sudan, where conflict has raged for nearly four years.
Akechak was accused by at least one alleged rape victim of instructing soldiers under his command to rape aid workers at the Terrain Hotel complex in Juba in July 2016.
“Instead for him to stop rape or looting because he was a commanding officer for that unit, one of the victims reported he was the one facilitating rape,” Domic said. The soldiers were also accused of killing a local journalist, John Gatluak.
While defense attorney Philip Sanyang told VOA that Akechak’s death comes as a shock, it will not jeopardize his efforts to prosecute the other defendants.
Cause of death questioned
He also questioned the commander’s cause of death.
“If the army is saying it is a natural death, natural death happens with reasons, so there must be post-mortem report that shows this person died of natural death, so it can’t just be a verbal testimony by anyone,” said Sanyang.
The specific charges against each of the remaining suspects are unclear, along with the evidence that led to the charges.
The military court overseeing the case ordered the women accusing the soldiers of rape to return to the country and testify in person against the accused, refusing any testimony offered outside of South Sudan. Most of the aid workers left South Sudan shortly after the incident took place and have not returned.
Evidence to convict
Sanyang said Akechak was an important witness to the prosecution’s case, but he believes there is enough evidence to convict the other soldiers.
“Most of the charges levied against this person were things that were done jointly. So in an absence of one person it cannot lead to the throwing out of the other charges against other accused persons. We know it has created a gap, but still we are hopeful that the case is still well,” Sanyang said.
An alleged victim from Italy returned to South Sudan in August to testify. In two weeks another victim is expected to return and provide evidence.
Domic said court proceedings are expected to reconvene this week, but will be held behind closed doors.