April 25, 2014 (JUBA) – A South Sudanese court has freed four politicians accused of plotting to overthrow president Salva Kiir by military force after the government dropped treason charges.
- Former SPLM secretary-general Pagan Amum (L) and former deputy minister of defence Majak Deng Agot (second from left) leave a courthouse in Juba after their release on 25 April 2014 (Photo EPA/Phillip Dhil)
The court order read out a request by the ministry of justice asking it to drop the case against all four officials, explaining the decision was made “in order to promote peace and reconciliation among our people”.
The president of the special court, Judge James Alala Deng, said the court had accepted the government’s request to stay the case and release the officials in the interests of the nation.
Former security minister Oyay Deng Ajak, former secretary-general of South Sudan’s ruling party (SPLM) Pagan Amum Okiech, former defence minister Majak D’Agoot and former US envoy Ezekiel Lol Gatkouth have been in detention for the past four months after being accused of masterminding the alleged coup plot with a number of other senior officials, including former vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar.
“Based on the report and request by the government … the court decided to stay the process and release the officials who were on trial,” Deng announced amid celebrations.
The release comes after justice minister Paulino Wanawilla Unango announced on Thursday that the leadership had decided to drop treason charges in a move aimed at ending conflict, which erupted in mid-December last year following escalating political tensions between Kiir and Machar.
However, the government said it will maintain similar charges against Machar, former Unity State governor Taban Deng Gai and former environment minister Alfred Lado Gore, all of whom have been charged in absentia.
CELEBRATIONS IN COURT
Supporters, relatives and friends and relatives of the accused were in court to hear the decision, with the announcement greeted with jubilation.
Some of the officials were carried on the shoulders of supporters through the crowd, who described the decisions as “an honour to [the country’s] justice system”.
Speaking to journalists shortly his release, Amum, said he welcomed the government’s decision, expressing hope peace could be restored in the fractured country.
“This decision marks the beginning of a serious work and the search for peace. We will now work with all the parties and the stakeholders to bring peace to this country,” he said.
“We will make necessary contacts with the government and those in the opposition to end this senseless war that is killing our people,” added Amum, who was previously considered a powerful figure within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
“We have to return South Sudan to peace and stability as a matter of priority and we must do it now to avoid more death and endless suffering,” he said.
Amum maintained that the group had been arrested and imprisoned without valid reasons, while lead defence lawyer Monyluak Alor said the decision vindicated his clients of any wrongdoing.
“Really what happened was legally unbelievable. There was no single legal evidence to prove the allegations,” Alor told journalists outside the court.
“They are innocent. They were witch hunted, but justice has prevailed. We accept their release because peace and reconciliation are paramount now,” he added.
In a separate statement, presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny said that the decision was a significant step as rebels would no longer be able to use the release of the officials as a precondition for peace talks.
“This is a significant step because the issue of the four suspects of the coup attempt cannot be used by the party as a ploy to stay away from negotiating in good faith,” Ateny told reporters.
It will definitely bridge the gap between the parties at the negotiation table in Addis Ababa when these talk resume,” he added.
The presidential aide added the decision would now reduce international pressure on the government, as well as expedite efforts aimed at ending the conflict.
“The international community has been calling for their release and the government has been studying and evaluating the genuineness of these calls … We want to see if it can give chance for peace to come to South Sudan,” he said.
Meanwhile, veteran journalist and editor of the Juba-based Daily Monitor Alfred Taban said the government’s case had been weak.
“The release of these people is a significant step. It will encourage peaceful dialogue and promotion of reconciliation. It also means that the government does not want to be embarrassed by the ruling of the court because the government had a weak case,” said Taban, adding that prosecution witnesses had failed to establish the group had participated in the alleged coup.
Charges were also dropped against seven other senior SPLM officials, who were released into the care of neighbouring Kenya in January.
Fighting in South Sudan initially broke out in the capital, Juba, between rival members of the presidential guard.
The fighting rapidly escalated, pitting government troops loyal to Kiir against defectors and ethnic militia aligned with Machar, who was sacked last July.
The UN has threatened to impose targeted sanctions on South Sudan’s warring parties amid worsening violence and human right abuses.