Verdict due for South Sudan soldiers accused of murder, rape

The verdict and sentencing for 11 South Sudan soldiers accused of gang raping foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist during the country's five-year civil war will be announced Thursday and could include the death penalty.

An investigation by the Associated Press in 2016 revealed that dozens of soldiers broke into the Terrain Hotel in Juba where they killed a local journalist, raped international aid workers and assaulted others while U.N. peacekeepers nearby did not respond to pleas for help.

The verdict, which is expected to be attended by foreigners and diplomats, will take place in a military court eight months after the trial ended. If convicted of rape, soldiers could face up to 14 years in prison and if convicted of murder they could be sentenced to death.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. A twelfth soldier was charged but he died from sickness in detention earlier this year while standing trial. Both the prosecution and the defendants will have 15 days to appeal the verdict, said the army.

The trial, which began in May last year, is widely seen as a test of South Sudan's ability to hold its soldiers to account. The army is hoping the trial will act as a deterrent to other soldiers while sending a message to the civilian population that anyone who commits a crime will be punished, army spokesman Col. Domic Chol Santo, told AP.

"This is important because the army has been accused of a great deal of rape, sexual harassment and all forms of violations and it's not part of our doctrine," said Santo.

Manager of the Terrain Hotel, Mike Woodward, has been closely involved with the case and says he's happy with the due process and is looking forward to the verdict.

"Every single soldier on trial has been identified by at least one if not multiple victims or witnesses. As with any normal legal process we hope that we will be compensated for our losses, that the criminals be punished and that an example is set to discourage others from committing similar crimes in the future," said Woodward.

"I've been waiting for this moment for two years, where I've felt so alone during this time," one of the rape survivors told AP, which does not use the names of victims of sexual assault. She was the only survivor who came back to South Sudan to testify in person during the trial.

"I really hope this fight will be for something positive," she said. "And that this will set a precedent for other crimes and for other women who are abused and who don't have a voice."