JUBA, South Sudan – Seven people including South Sudanese academic and activist, Peter Biar Ajak, were charged in court Monday with sabotage, insurgency and possession of weapons for allegedly staging an uprising in South Sudan's main national security prison in October. If found guilty they could be sentenced to death.
The men are being tried in a civilian court and are being accused by the country's National Security Service for stealing firearms and communicating false statements while in prison. South Sudanese businessman, Kerbino Agok Wol, one of the accused, allegedly spearheaded the attack and then spoke about it with U.S. based news outlet, Voice of America while in jail.
The charges are the first to be brought against the men, and they are different from the reasons each of them was originally detained.
Ajak, a political commentator and a graduate of Harvard University and a PhD student at Cambridge University in Britain was arrested in July at Juba's international airport. Businessman and philanthropist, Wol was detained last April and another of the accused, Benjamin Agai, had been in prison for 10 months for allegedly stealing a car, yet this was the first time he'd seen a judge, he said.
During the hearing, Ajak's lawyer, Monyluak Alor Kuol accused the prosecution of trying to deflect public attention away from the reason his client was in jail in the first place. "He's a victim of abuse of power by some national security elements," said Kuol.
Last month the United Nations warned that South Sudan is increasingly run by its national security service and the country is at risk of becoming a police state, according to a report by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
Monday's hearing, in a packed courtroom attended by members of the international community including the United States, the United Nations and advocacy groups, was at times charged.
At one point the prosecution presented government papers to the court referring to incidents with names and dates that didn't match the present case. "This trial is something else, these statements are something else," said Wol's defense lawyer, Ajak Mayol Bior waving his hands in the air.
In recent months several in the international community has pressured South Sudan's government to release both Wol and Ajak.
In March the U.N. condemned Ajak's continued detention citing a "clear trend in the use of national security and counter-terrorism legislation by states to criminalize free expression and the legitimate work of human rights defenders." U.S. congresswoman Madeleine Dean tweeted in February that it's time for South Sudan's President Salva Kiir to free South Sudan's political prisoners, including Ajak.
And for the first time ever, earlier this month South Sudan's government was summoned to appear before the East African Court of Justice over the arbitrary arrest and detention of Wol, according to Amnesty International.
As the trial continues with two more hearings scheduled later this week, local advocacy groups are calling on the government to uphold the rule of law.
"It is a right time for the state to exercise its constitutional obligations on protecting the rights of the citizens," said Edmund Yakani, executive director for Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local rights group.