A South Sudan military court Thursday sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for raping foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist in a brutal attack at the Terrain Hotel more than two years ago in Juba.
The court also ordered the government to compensate the victims of the July 11, 2016, attack. Government forces were locked in battle for three days against forces loyal to former First Vice President Riek Machar.
Witnesses said armed men attacked the hotel for several hours while aid workers called U.N. peacekeepers stationed less than a mile away, begging for help. The peacekeepers did not arrive. Kenyan Lieutenant General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Juba, was fired shortly afterward.
Presiding Judge Brigadier General Knight Baryano sentenced two soldiers to life in prison, two to 14 years behind bars and five other soldiers to 10 years in prison.
One soldier released
One soldier, Akol Aken, was released because of a lack of evidence against him. The military commander accused of overseeing the attack died in prison last October in what the army described as a "natural death."
The court ordered the government to pay 51 head of cattle as blood compensation to the bereaved family of slain journalist John Gatluak, who worked for Internews Community Radio.
Baryano ordered the South Sudan government to pay each rape victim $4,000 and to pay the owner of the Terrain Hotel more than $2 million in damages.
Attorney Peter Malua, who represented the accused, told South Sudan in Focus he would appeal the verdict.
Under South Sudan law, the accused have 15 days to appeal their sentences.
Sudan People's Liberation Army spokesman Colonel Santo Domic called the ruling an eye-opener for all SPLA soldiers, saying they should know they will be held responsible for any criminal behavior they take part in while on duty.
Issa Muzamil Sebit, an independent lawyer who represented some of the victims in the case, said he thought justice had been served.
But he also said many South Sudanese had suffered similar abuses and were yearning for justice. He urged the SPLA to work on repairing its tarnished image.
"This is a special case for Terrain, but there are so many victims of such assaults in South Sudan. This one is a special case because most of the victims were international community members. But what if they are South Sudanese — should we keep quiet because there is nobody to talk or to fight for them? So all these kinds of sexual assaults, whether directed on men or women, are unacceptable under the law," Sebit told South Sudan in Focus.
The U.S. Embassy in Juba released a statement saying it welcomed Thursday's verdicts but urging South Sudan's leaders to bring to justice others who have perpetrated human rights abuses during the five-year conflict.
The embassy said the United States would "continue to utilize tools, including targeted sanctions, to take action against those who attempt to sow chaos, work against peace and commit serious human rights abuses in South Sudan."