A South Sudan military court on Thursday, September 6 found 10 soldiers guilty of raping five foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist during fighting in Juba in July 2016.
“The military court has found out that the accused … are guilty for their direct responsibilities in committing these crimes,” the military judge ruled, detailing charges of rape, murder, looting and destruction.
After 31 trial sessions, two soldiers were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of local journalist John Gatluak, as well as rape and other crimes.
The others received sentences ranging from seven to 14 years for charges including rape, sexual harassment and looting.
One accused was acquitted while another, a military commander accused of overseeing the chilling attack, died in prison last October in what the army said was a “natural death.”
Violence erupted in South Sudan’s capital when a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar collapsed in July 2016.
During the clashes, government forces attacked the Terrain Hotel compound housing some 50 employees of foreign organizations.
In his evidence at the start of the trial, the hotel’s British owner, Mike Woodward, said that “50 to 100 armed soldiers” broke into the compound.
“One group proceeded straight to the bar and restaurant while another group continued to the residential area,” he said.
Woodward listed “the gang rape of at least five international women,” the murder of a South Sudanese journalist, the shooting of a U.S. aid worker and “the beating and torture of almost every person in the entire building,” including mock executions, among the crimes allegedly committed at his hotel.
During the attack the aid workers made multiple appeals for help to U.N. peacekeepers, which went unanswered. The Terrain hotel was 1.2 km (three-quarters of a mile) from U.N. House.
A special U.N. investigation found that a lack of leadership in the U.N. mission UNMISS – which has 13,000 uniformed personnel in South Sudan – culminated in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the July fighting.
The U.N.’s operations center made “multiple requests to stand up a quick reaction force to respond but each UNMISS contingent turned down the request,” the report found.
“Even after the Government’s highest ranking general provided a liaison officer to meet an UNMISS quick reaction force at a checkpoint near the main gate to facilitate its movement to Terrain camp, no response team materialized.”
The force’s Kenyan commander, Lieutenant General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, was later sacked.
The court on Thursday ruled that South Sudan’s government must pay compensation of $4,000 (€3,440) to each rape victim, and over $2 million to Woodward for damage to his property. The court also ordered the government to pay the family of the murdered journalist 51 head of cattle, according to Reuters.
‘Step towards ending impunity’
“The leadership of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) would like to issue an apology to the victims,” army spokesman Colonel Santo Domic told journalists after the ruling.
He said the long trial and delayed verdict was because “most of the victims had left South Sudan immediately after the conflict, getting them took long.”
Last year a victim from Italy returned to testify, while six others who were raped or sexually harassed gave testimony via video link, said Domic.
Woodward welcomed the verdict.
“I am very happy that the criminals have gone to prison, I think that is a good thing. I am happy that the family of the victim who was murdered… got compensated,” he told AFP.
Defence lawyer Peter Malual said he would appeal the verdict, claiming that under South Sudanese law it was illegal to send a soldier to jail for murder when the victim’s family had received compensation.
Both government troops and rebel forces have been accused of atrocities – including widespread rape – in South Sudan’s civil war which began in 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
The Terrain trial was a rare example of justice in the conflict, which some observers attribute to the unusual presence of foreign victims.
“After much foot dragging, today’s convictions and sentences represent a first step towards ending chronic impunity in South Sudan, where both government forces and the armed opposition have committed human rights violations and crimes under international law, with complete disregard for human life,” said regional Amnesty International chief Seif Magango.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on September 6.