A South Sudan military court on Thursday found 10 soldiers guilty for their role in an attack on a Juba hotel in which five foreign aid workers were gang-raped, and a journalist was killed.
“The military court has found out that the accused… are guilty for their direct responsibilities in committing these crimes,” said Judge Knight Baryano Almas, detailing charges of rape, murder, looting and destruction.
One suspect was acquitted while another, a military commander accused of overseeing the horrific attack, died in prison last October in what the army said was a “natural death”.
After 31 trial sessions, two soldiers were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of local journalist John Gatluak, as well as rape and other crimes.
The others received sentences ranging from seven to 14 years for charges including rape, sexual harassment and looting.
– Gang-rape and mock executions –
Violence erupted in South Sudan’s capital when a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar collapsed in July 2016.
During the clashes, government forces rampaged through the Terrain hotel compound housing some 50 employees of foreign organisations.
In his evidence at the start of the trial, the hotel’s British owner, Mike Woodward, said that “50 to 100 armed soldiers” broke into the compound.
Woodward listed “the gang rape of at least five international women”, the murder of a South Sudanese journalist, the shooting of a US aid worker and “the beating and torture of almost every person in the entire building”, including mock executions, among the crimes allegedly committed at his hotel.
During the attack the aid workers made multiple appeals for help to nearby UN peacekeepers, which went unanswered.
A special UN investigation found that a lack of leadership in the UN mission — which has 13,000 uniformed personnel in South Sudan — culminated in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the July fighting.
The court on Thursday ruled that South Sudan’s government must pay compensation of $4,000 (3,440 euros) to each rape victim, and more than $2 million to Woodward for damage to his property.
Gatluak’s family will be compensated with 51 head of cattle.
– ‘Step towards ending impunity’ –
“The leadership of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) would like to issue an apology to the victims,” army spokesman Colonel Santo Domic told journalists after the ruling.
He said the long trial and delayed verdict was because “most of the victims had left South Sudan immediately after the conflict — getting them took long.”
Last year a victim from Italy returned to testify, while six others who were raped or sexually harassed gave testimony via video link, Domic said.
Woodward welcomed the verdict.
“I am very happy that the criminals have gone to prison, I think that is a good thing. I am happy that the family of the victim who was murdered… got compensated,” he told AFP.
Defence lawyer Peter Malual said he would appeal the verdict, claiming that under South Sudanese law it was illegal to send a soldier to jail for murder when the victim’s family had received compensation.
Both government troops and rebel forces have been accused of atrocities — including widespread, brutal rape — in South Sudan’s civil war which began in 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
The Terrain trial was a rare example of justice in the conflict, which some observers attribute to the unusual presence of foreign victims.
“After much foot dragging, today’s convictions and sentences represent a first step towards ending chronic impunity in South Sudan,” said regional Amnesty International chief Seif Magango.
In a statement the US embassy in Juba urged the government to hold accountable those responsible for numerous other violent attacks that have killed tens of thousands and “rampant sexual violence”.
“At least 107 aid workers and 13 journalists have been killed trying to help the South Sudanese people or cover the conflict in South Sudan since it started in December 2013,” the statement read.