JUBA / WASHINGTON - A military trial opened Tuesday in South Sudan for 20 soldiers accused of murder and rape in an attack on international aid workers last year.
Thirteen of the suspects, all in military uniform, were in court in Juba to hear the charges against them: murder, rape, torture and looting during an attack last July on the Terrain Hotel complex in the South Sudanese capital. The chief military prosecutor said the accused could face the death penalty if found guilty.
Proceedings began at the Giada Barracks in Juba. Four of the defendants wore insignia of the Tiger Brigade, the country's presidential guard.
Lieutenant General Mangar Buong, an assistant chief of defense forces for administration, finance and personnel, said the trial proves the Sudan People's Liberation Army does not condone human-rights abuses. The trial is the first known prosecution of government forces members on rape charges.
The chief prosecutor, Colonel Abubakar Mohammed Ramadhan, asked the Terrain Hotel's manager to describe what happened last July 11. Witness Michael Woodward said 50 to 100 armed soldiers, along with a vehicle-mounted machine gun, broke through the gates of the hotel and burst inside after overpowering security guards:
"They started vandalizing and shooting. During this time, another group started stealing the vehicles. A total of 18 were stolen, nine belonging to the hotel. At around 4:30 p.m., physical attacks ... started. This included the murder of one man, John Gatluak, working with Internews. They gang-raped at least five women workers for international organizations," Woodward testified.
Fight against impunity
Prosecutor Philips Anyang told VOA's South Sudan In Focus that the trial marks a step forward in the fight against impunity in South Sudan.
"It is a great gesture because this case has been going on for almost a year, and the whole world has been waiting for it. The start today gives us a green light that there is hope for justice at some stage," Anyang said outside the courtroom.
Human Rights Watch has corroborated the hotel manager's testimony that female aid workers were threatened at gunpoint and raped. A report by the rights group said terrified aid workers called for help from United Nations troops stationed 1,200 meters away from the Terrain complex, but there was no response.
The defense attorney in the military proceedings, First Lieutenant Peter Malual Deng, asked for further trial sessions to be postponed until he could familiarize himself with details of the case. His request was granted, and the trial is due to resume June 6.
Some skeptical of progress
Some analysts are not convinced the military trials will mark an end to impunity for crimes committed by soldiers. Amnesty International researcher Elizabeth Deng said there were crucial flaws in Tuesday's proceedings, and that holding the trial in Juba's chief military barracks could have an intimidating effect on victims of the attacks who might be called to testify.
"We oppose the use of military courts for crimes against civilians," Deng said. "And in fact, the SPLA Act itself provides that whenever a military personnel commits an offense against a civilian or civilian property, the civil court shall assume jurisdiction over such offense," Deng noted.
Seven months ago, the army said it had arrested more than 70 soldiers suspected of committing various crimes last year during a period of unrest that included the Terrain Hotel attack. No convictions or sentences for those men has yet been announced, however; authorities say a lack of evidence has hampered their investigations.
Neither did the Amnesty International researcher agree a trial would mark a step toward accountability for the armed forces. For one thing, she said, the venue — Juba's military barracks — could foster an atmosphere of intimidation.
"For people who lived in Juba, we know that this is where the violence in December 2013 broke out," Deng said. "That Giada [military barracks] is notorious as a place for detention and forced disappearance and torture. And that it is a place filled with military personnel.
"So when you have the alleged perpetrators who are members of the military themselves, it is extremely unlikely that victims or witnesses would feel comfortable and safe participating in, attending [or] giving testimony that takes place within the military barracks."
Many foreign victims of last year's outbreak of violence are no longer in South Sudan, Deng noted, adding: "It will take a special commitment and effort to contact them and to ensure their availability, whether by scheduling them to come to South Sudan or allowing them to testify via video link. So I think this will require a prosecution that is really committed and diligent."