By SAM MEDNICK
JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — A military judge in South Sudan on Thursday sentenced 10 soldiers to jail for a 2016 rampage in which a local journalist was killed and five international aid workers were gang-raped.
The case was widely seen as a test of South Sudan’s ability to hold its soldiers to account during the five-year civil war here, and diplomats and activists welcomed the outcome. However, they said many other victims of violations have yet to see justice and urged the government to hold more trials.
Brig. Gen. Knight Briano convicted and sentenced two soldiers to life in prison for the murder of South Sudanese journalist John Gatluak Nhial. The judge found three other soldiers guilty of raping foreign aid workers, four guilty of sexual harassment and one guilty of theft and armed robbery. They received sentences ranging from seven to 14 years in jail.
Another soldier was acquitted for lack of evidence. Still another accused soldier died in jail during the trial.
The convicted soldiers were stripped of their uniforms before being transported by truck to prison.
In July 2016, dozens of soldiers broke into the Terrain Hotel compound in Juba and began their rampage, while U.N. peacekeepers nearby did not respond to pleas for help. An investigation by the Associated Press in 2016 revealed the extent of the crimes and spurred the South Sudanese government and the United Nations to investigate.
The army hopes the trial will act as a deterrent to other soldiers while reassuring civilians that anyone who commits a crime will be punished, army spokesman Col. Domic Chol Santo told AP.
“This is important because the army has been accused of a great deal of rape, sexual harassment and all forms of violations, and it’s not part of our doctrine,” said Santo.
The judge ordered more than $2 million to be paid to the Terrain Hotel for damages, $4,000 to each of five rape victims, $1,000 to an aid worker who was shot in the leg and 51 cattle to the family of the journalist who was killed (each cattle is worth roughly $600).
Many were pleased by the verdicts.
“I am very happy! I won…we won…women won!” exclaimed a rape survivor who had returned to South Sudan to testify in the trial. “It is important to fight for our rights and never give up. We women have to still continue to fight for our rights that still in 2018 are trampled.”
The woman said she is “happy for all women in South Sudan and other parts of the world who don’t have voice. This trial can be a precedent for rape as war crimes.” She said she found the compensation of $4,000 for each rape victim “offensive.” AP does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Other survivors of the attack testified by video, rather than returning to South Sudan for the trial. It was the first time that South Sudan courts accepted testimony by video.
“The process was far from perfect, but shows that justice can be done where there is political will to do so,” said Jehanne Henry, associate director in Africa for Human Rights Watch. She said the case shows “how far South Sudan has to go to provide real justice and accountability for atrocities committed in this war.”
Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s East Africa Deputy Director, praised the ruling as “a first step toward ending chronic impunity in South Sudan, where both government forces and the armed opposition have committed human rights violations and crimes under international law, with complete disregard for human life.”
France’s ambassador to South Sudan, Jean-Yves Roux, said he hopes the verdict sends a message that violence and impunity are not “business as usual, and that this trial opens the way for other trials.”
Some observers had criticized the fact that only low-ranked soldiers were tried, but their commanders were not.
“We continue to push for commanders to be held responsible and not only for the low-level people to be picked on,” said Andrew Clapham of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
“That’s the only way we’re going to be able to prevent things in the future — if the commanders feel that there is some accountability and punishment,” he said.