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South Sudanese prisoners demand justice

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By Robert A. Portada III

The Republic of South Sudan finds itself in a moment of truth. Having made progress toward implementation of a new comprehensive peace agreement, and with billions of dollars in international aid and sanctions relief hanging in the balance, the President of the Republic Salva Kiir recently issued a decree calling for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of war. Many detainees have been held for months, others for several years, without formal charges being filed or access to lawyers granted, inside the notorious Blue House, the headquarters of the National Security Services. These detainees include the prominent political activist Peter Biar Ajak and the entrepreneur and philanthropist Kerbino Wol.

In recent weeks, several false and disturbing reports were issued. In one instance just a few days ago, government officials asserted that Peter Biar had been released, reported on the front page of the Juba Monitor, though he remained in detention. In another instance, government officials claimed that there were, in fact, no political detainees in the Blue House, that all had already been released.

These reports were revealed to be fake news when in the early hours of Sunday, October 7, prisoners in the Blue House peacefully took control of the prison. Having non-violently disarmed their guards and immediately requesting contact with neutral bodies who could negotiate without force on their behalf, the prisoners collectively demanded that their silenced voices be heard. The prisoners told international news outlets that masked armed men had been abducting inmates from their cells in the dead of night, never to return, for the past month. They feared for their fate, without due process or legal advocacy, that they may be subject to a systematic effort to disappear the prisoners one by one.

Deprived of any access to justice, terrorized by anonymous agents, and left without any recourse to profess their innocence, the prisoners set forth a simple set of demands in the few hours during which they were able to communicate with the outside world:

1. They demanded that all the prisoners be kept in the same facility.
2. They demanded that no further harm comes to them and that all the prisoners be treated humanely.
3. They demanded the right to receive visits from family, friends, and loved ones.
4. They demanded the right to meet and consult with lawyers
5. They demanded the right to fair trials and adjudication of their cases in courts of law.
6. They demanded the implementation of the presidential decree with respect to the release of political prisoners and prisoners of war.

Though weapons were fired in their direction, the prisoners never once returned fire and continued to insist on a non-violent resolution to their grievances.

The same day of the revolt, the prisoners negotiated in good faith with government interlocutors and community elders to lay down their arms without violent incident. They operated bravely and with an unmatched dignity, holding no wish in their hearts to meet their oppressors with retribution. They merely wished to be heard, that the government adhere to this list of demands, and to have access to the justice that they deserve.

It is now up to the Government of South Sudan to reveal what future they have committed the country to. Will the government continue to ask the international community to fund the peace process while they actively undermine it? Does the president have command of his own government? Do his decrees carry any force or legitimacy? If not, the entirety of the peace agreement must be viewed as a hollow set of false promises. If the prisoners do not receive compliance with the just demands that were agreed upon, the government will have revealed its own complicity in unjust imprisonment and its lack of ability to mediate and resolve the conflicts that continue to plague the world’s youngest nation. Surely, there can be no restoration of aid or alleviation of sanctions to a government that would negotiate in such bad faith.

No one will be able to say going forward that there are no political prisoners in South Sudan. We who have friends and loved ones being held without trial know they are there, we have suffered in solidarity with them for these many months and years, and we will continue to fight for the demands they have put forward.

If the government truly desires a peaceful and prosperous future, they can meet these demands, and work toward consolidating a path toward democracy and the rule of law in the spirit of peace they claim as their motivation. Such a government can expect to be integrated back into the global community.

The choice is in their hands. The entire world is watching.

Dr Robert A. Portada III is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science & Public Administration - Kutztown University of Pennsylvania



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