Thirteen South Sudanese soldiers accused of raping five foreign aid workers and killing their local colleague on July 11, 2016, in Juba were arraigned in a military court Tuesday to answer to the charges.
The case is the first of its kind since the start of the ongoing civil war in South Sudan in December 2013 and is seen as a test of the government’s capacity to try serious war crimes, according to Reuters.
“What is concerned here for the court is to address the case in a proper way,” South Sudanese Chief Prosecutor Abukuk Mohammed Ramadan said in his opening remarks.
The murderers face a minimum of 10 years in prison with a fine paid to the victim’s family or a maximum of the death penalty, while the rapists face up to 14 years in jail, according to the prosecution.
The 13 soldiers are accused of raping five women working with various humanitarian organizations in South Sudan and killing 32-year-old John Gatluak, a local aide to the five women, radio journalist, and managing editor of InterNews Community Radio Network.
But the defense has denied these charges, saying the evidence provided was not sufficient to prove the soldiers were responsible for the attack.
“What I know, the area was under operation at the time and rebels were controlling the area,” the defendants’ lawyer Peter Malaul argued.
UN Peacekeeping Troops’ Failure
According to witnesses, the victims contacted UN peacekeepers stationed just a mile away from the Terrain Hotel, where the attack happened, to beg for help, but no one came to their rescue.
The horrifying incident, which is alleged to have lasted seven hours, led to the firing of the head of the UN peacekeeping troops in South Sudan, Lt. Gen Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya, for failure of action during the attack.
In a damning report published by Relief Web November 2016, the UN peacekeeping troops in S. Sudan were accused of abandoning their posts and failing to respond to pleas for help by aid workers under attack at the Terrain Hotel.
Describing the incident in court, the owner of the ill-fated hotel, Mike Woodward, said between 50 and 100 soldiers arrived at the hotel in the afternoon on July 11, 2016, and began shooting and looting.
“Five women working with humanitarian organizations were then raped. John Gatluak was shot at 6:15 p.m.,” said Woodward.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) currently has 16,000 peacekeeping troops in the world’s youngest country, where they have been fighting between government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to Kiir’s former deputy Riek Machar.
The war, which started in December 2013 when the two leaders fell out, has since left close to 300,000 people dead and millions of others displaced.