January 29, 2014 (JUBA) – The South Sudanese government announced on Wednesday the release of seven of the 11 political detainees, despite mounting pressure from the international community and right activists for all to be freed.
- Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta (C) receives seven of the 11 political leaders accused of plotting a failed military coup in South Sudan in December, in Nairobi on 29 January 2014. Also pictured is retired Kenyan general Lazaro Sumbeiywo (second right) and director-general of Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) Michael Gichangi at far right (Photo: AP/Kenyan presidency)
South Sudan’s minister of Justice, Paulino Wanawilla Unago, confirmed the release of the seven detainees to Sudan Tribune, saying all had since left the country amid safety fears but will return to face trial.
“They (the detainees) left the country because some people have expressed serious concerns about their safety if they continue to stay here. Also one of presidents from our neighbouring countries had promised to allow them stay in his country and would bring them when there is a need for further investigation, especially if they are found later to have participated in the failed coup attempt”, he said.
Unago declined to reveal the name of the country which had offered political asylum to the detainees, although former cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol confirmed to Sudan Tribune that he and the six other detainees had arrived in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, as it is confirmed by the Kenyan presidency.
Kuol was released along with former minister of telecommunications and postal services Madut Biar Yel, former youth minister Cirino Iteng, former finance minister Kosti Manibe, former roads and transport minister Gier Chuang Aluong, former justice minister John Luk Jok, former Lakes state governor Chol Tong Mayay.
Those who remain in detention include Pagan Amum Okiech, former secretary-general of the ruling SPLM party, Oyai Deng Ajak, former minister for national security, Majak D’Agoot, former deputy minister of defence and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, former South Sudanese ambassador to the United States.
In a statement to Kenyan state media upon the group’s arrival in Nairobi, Jok said that as leaders of the young nation they were “ashamed” of the quarrelling over issues which could have been resolved peacefully, referring to the political row within the ruling party that led to the violence.
Their release comes as South Sudan government on Tuesday slapped treason charges against seven of 13 senior politicians implicated in last year’s alleged coup attempt in the country’s capital, Juba, including former vice-president Riek Machar.
Unago told reporters on Tuesday that the findings of an investigation into the role of the detainees in an alleged coup attempt had found that the group were behind a plot to remove Kiir from power through military means.
“Anybody who intends to change a constitutional government or to suspend the constitution or abrogate the constitution by force commits treason”, Unago said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Kuol expressed his gratitude to those who had campaigned for their release.
“We recognise and appreciate all the efforts and pushes you made for our release. I also would like our religious leaders to pray for country and the safety of those comrades who have not yet been released”, he said.
WASHINGTON WEIGHS IN
The US state department welcomed the release of the seven detainees by the government in Juba, but reiterated its demand for the release of all those still in detention in order to ensure their participation in the political process.
“This is an important step towards an inclusive political dialogue under the auspices of IGAD”, said state department spokesperson Jen Psaki, adding, “We urge the Government of South Sudan to release the remaining four”.
She also called on South Sudan’s political leaders to work together to fully implement the cessation of hostility agreement and the agreement on political detainees, which provides that the two warring parties acknowledge the role that the political detainees can play in the settlement of the conflict.
“And as per the 23 January agreement on the status of the detainees signed by the government and the opposition, the expeditious release of the detainees is critical to moving that piece forward. So that’s where our focus is”, Psaki added.
The status of the political detainees proved a major stumbling block during peace negotiations between the South Sudanese government and rebel forces loyal to Machar.
Despite mounting international pressure, Juba steadfastly refused to release the senior political officials, many of whom were sacked in July last year after becoming increasingly critical of president Salva Kiir Mayardit’s leadership style.
Both sides finally signed a ceasefire agreement on 23 January in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, after rebels dropped a precondition on releasing the detainees.
Fighting first broke out between rival groups within the presidential guard in the capital, Juba, in mid-December before spreading to oil-producing areas, where pro-Machar forces and government troops loyal to Kiir have been battling for control of key areas.
Thirteen senior politicians were initially detained in connection to the alleged coup plot, with two others released in December.