Head of the rebel delegation General Taban Deng Gai, addresses journalists during South Sudan's negotiations in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 8, 2014.
FILE - Taban Deng Gai addresses journalists in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 8, 2014.

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - South Sudanese First Vice President Taban Deng Gai is denying allegations of human rights abuses and criticizing U.S. sanctions against him.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned Deng on Wednesday. Officials say Deng arranged and directed the deaths of two prominent activists — human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and opposition politician Aggrey Iddri — and tried to derail South Sudan's peace process. Conflict broke out in 2013 following a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar.

The U.S. government also says Deng worked to divide opposition opponents and members of the broader ethnic Nuer community who were displaced because of the conflict. Officials say he directed the actions to solidify his position within Kiir’s government and to intimidate members of the SPLM-IO, of which Iddri was a member.

FILE - Children play with a suitcase in a displaced persons camp for the Nuer ethnic group inside the UNMISS compound in Bor, South Sudan, Feb. 27, 2014.

Deng called the sanctions "regrettable and baseless."

The U.S. move is the latest in a series of sanctions against South Sudanese individuals.

The Treasury Department accuses South Sudan's government of refusing to create "political space for dissenting voices, from opposition parties, ethnic groups, civil society, or media," an issue it said has been a key factor in the country's inability to implement a peace agreement and ongoing acts of violence against civilians.

In September 2018, Kiir and Machar signed a revitalized peace agreement that called for the formation of a national unity government by May 2019. Government and opposition leaders extended that deadline twice, but have not taken steps to create a unified national army — one of the measures seen as key to implementing the peace deal. The biggest remaining obstacle between the government and the opposition is the dispute over the number of states and their boundaries.

Kiir and Machar are scheduled to form the unity government in February.

Defending Deng 

Deng’s office manager defended his boss and his activities.

"In discharging his duties as the first vice president of the Republic of South Sudan, he dedicated and committed himself to working for the unity and peaceful co-existence among the people of South Sudan to secure a future for them," Adel Sandrai told VOA.

The U.S. said the sanctions fall under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption.

FILE - South Sudan's First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, left, speaks with President Salva Kiir after Taban was sworn in, replacing opposition leader Riek Machar, at the presidential palace in Juba, South Sudan, July 26, 2016.

The Treasury Department noted in its statement that since the September 2018 peace deal, which included a permanent cease-fire, hundreds of civilians have been killed, raped and abducted. It said the U.S. will not hesitate to target individuals who have perpetuated the conflict.

Sandrai maintains that Deng has worked to restore peace in South Sudan.

"Despite the sanctions wrongly imposed on him, H.E General Taban Deng Gai pledges to continue to work with the United States and the international community to demonstrate such commitment and to prove the unfounded nature of the allegations against him," Sandrai said.

The sanctions freeze all cash or assets held in the U.S. and block Deng from accessing the American financial system.

Next steps

Abraham Kuol Nyuon, professor of political science at the University of Juba, said Kiir should fire the officials already on the list of people sanctioned by the United States.

"The president should be able to redeem himself by trying to make sure he disassociates himself from the people who have already been sanctioned and the people who have become spoilers to the peace agreement," Nyuon told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program.

Nyuon said he believes the only way Kiir can turn things around is by convincing the international community he is ready to cooperate.

"All the people around the president are already sanctioned and now the United States is seriously watching every step of the president," Nyuon said.

In December, the U.S. sanctioned Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk and Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomuro, saying they fueled the five-year conflict and obstructed peace in South Sudan, the world's youngest country. Five other South Sudanese were sanctioned last month.