JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudanese soldiers accused of a horrific attack on foreign aid workers during the country's civil war are facing trial almost a year later, with the possibility of a death sentence.
Twelve of the 20 soldiers accused of rape, torture, killing and looting during the attack on the Terrain hotel compound were in court Tuesday. The assault came during fresh fighting in the capital, Juba, in July.
An investigation by The Associated Press last year showed that dozens of soldiers broke into the compound and terrorized residents and staff while the nearby United Nations peacekeeping mission did not respond to pleas for help. Five foreigners reported being gang-raped, and one local journalist was shot in the head and killed as others were forced to watch.
The U.N. secretary-general later fired the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission over its response to the attacks on the hotel compound and elsewhere.
The trial is a test of South Sudan's ability to hold its soldiers accountable. It is expected to last several weeks, with the next court date scheduled for June 6.
If convicted of rape, the soldiers could face up to 14 years in prison. If convicted of murder, they could be sentenced to death. It was not immediately clear how the soldiers would plead.
The prosecution said it "absolutely" has the necessary evidence to convict the accused, citing testimony from witnesses and victims including an American man who was shot in the leg.
"We expect the same as from any normal trial," said Michael Woodward, the British former manager of the Terrain and the only witness to testify Tuesday. "We want justice for the victims, compensation for what was looted and we want this to serve as an example for people who commit similar crimes."
South Sudan's military marked the start of the trial by announcing it is committed to "human rights, the rule of law and the transparency of the legal system."
The start of the trial comes shortly after a new U.N report that exposed potential war crimes by the army in soldiers' targeting and killing of dozens of South Sudanese civilians. The international community has repeatedly expressed concern about impunity for widespread abuses in the civil war, which is well into its fourth year and has left tens of thousands dead.