JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - A South African man is facing a possible death sentence in South Sudan, after none of the key defense witnesses showed up at his trial on espionage charges and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
William John Endley was a security contractor for former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, now the leader of a rebel faction fighting the government of President Salva Kiir. Endley was arrested in August 2016, shortly after deadly fighting flared up between government forces and Machar's bodyguards in Juba.
Endley, a retired South African army colonel, appeared in court Thursday in Juba, but six of his defense witnesses, including First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, Petroleum Minister Ezekiel Lul Gatkuoth and Higher Education Minister Yien Oral Lam have been absent since the proceedings began.
Lam told VOA's South Sudan In Focus he had no knowledge of the case.
"This is what I don't know. Even none of the defense [lawyers] met myself. How could I be a witness to a person I don't know and in a case that I am not aware of the circumstances?" he said.
Agel Machar, spokesman for Taban Deng Gai, says the vice president is traveling overseas. He added that he is not in a position to comment on the case.
"I'm not aware of this case. I don't know about it. I'm hearing it for the first time from you. I will have to ask before I can make a comment on it," said Machar, who is not related to Riek Machar.
Endley's defense lawyer, Gar Adel, told the court Thursday that all key witnesses have traveled out of the country. He pleaded for more time to produce them in court at a later date.
Presiding High Court Judge Ladu Armenio rejected the defense's pleas, saying he will announce his final verdict next week.
Adel listed the charges against his client.
"The conspiracy to overthrow the government which is under the National Security Service Act 2014, espionage also contrary to section 57 of the National Security Act, supplying weaponry to insurgents, saboteur or terrorist under the Penal Code, subverting a constitutional government under the Penal Code and illegal entry to South Sudan under the Passport and Immigration Act 2011," Adel told VOA.
Endley first appeared in court last October with co-defendant James Gatdet Dak, Riek Machar's spokesman. The court sentenced Gatdet this week to a 21-year prison sentence to be followed by death by hanging.
Journalists were not allowed to record Thursday's proceedings, and Endley's lawyer had little to say after the court session.
"Today the defense and proceedings closed its case and today the court also closed the defense case, so that means we have come to a closure of the case," he said.
Chief prosecutor Deng Acuil told South Sudan in Focus that he has not been authorized to speak to the media about the case.
Adel says if Endley is found guilty, his client could be sentenced to life imprisonment and possibly the death penalty.
He says Endley was performing his duties as a security contractor to help Machar's forces integrate into the South Sudanese Army prior to being arrested. At the time, Kiir and Machar were attempting to implement a 2015 peace agreement.
Endley's first defense team withdrew from the case more than three weeks ago, citing the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that the government and Machar's group signed in December. The agreement requires South Sudan's warring parties to release all prisoners of war and political detainees.
Endley's daughter, Gweneth Endley, told South Sudan in Focus last year that she had not been able to learn much about the case against her father.
Mawien Makol, spokesman for South Sudan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said last year that Endley violated South Sudan's visa rules. He did not elaborate. At that time, Makol said Endley would be released once the government completed its investigation.