JUBA — A South Sudan military court on Tuesday opened the trial of 13 soldiers accused of raping foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist during fighting in Juba last July.
The chilling attack cast a spotlight on atrocities by government troops but also led to a damning probe into the failure of United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians, which led to the sacking of the force’s Kenyan commander.
The suspects appeared in court in a variety of uniforms indicating attachment to different units, including four in the colors of the “Tiger Division” which guards the president. There are no senior commanders among the accused.
“There is a crime of murder, we have a crime of raping, we have a crime of looting and we have a crime of damaging property. There were a lot of investigations that have been taking place,” military prosecutor Abubakr Mohamed Ramadan said.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup.
An August 2015 peace deal collapsed last July when fierce fighting erupted in Juba between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar.
A Human Rights Watch report documented targeted ethnic killings, rapes and gang rapes, beatings and looting during the clashes.
The report describes how on July 11, government forces attacked the Terrain compound housing some 50 employees of foreign organizations.
Witnesses and survivors told HRW how the soldiers “killed a prominent journalist, raped or gang raped several international and national staff of organizations, and destroyed, and extensively looted property.”
The attack began after the previous days of fighting had ended, with up to 100 soldiers swarming the compound and making off with vehicles and personal belongings. Aid workers huddling in one part of the compound were found, beaten and raped.
Female aid workers were threatened at gunpoint, with one beaten with a rifle butt while another soldier fired a bullet close to her head, HRW reported.
During the attack the aid workers made multiple appeals for help, which went unanswered.
“Many residents were not rescued for several hours, despite repeated calls to various organizations and security forces. During and after the rescues, the soldiers continued to ransack and loot the compound leaving nothing intact,” HRW said.
The body of murdered local journalist John Gatluak was not retrieved for several days.
A subsequent report from a special UN investigation showed that the agency’s UNMISS peacekeepers stationed just 1.2 kilometers away failed to respond to the rescue calls.
There were multiple requests made to the peacekeepers from China, Ethiopia, India and Nepal to dispatch forces “but each UNMISS contingent turned down the request, indicating their troops were fully committed.”
During the attack, “civilians were subjected to and witnessed gross human rights violations, including murder, intimidation, sexual violence and acts amounting to torture perpetrated by armed government soldiers,” it said.
The report found that a lack of leadership in the UN mission, which has some 13,000 uniformed personnel in South Sudan, culminated in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the July fighting. — AFP