On October 3, South Sudan’s government started its trial against Kuel Aguer Kuel and six activists associated with the People’s Coalition for Civic Action, a pro-reform pressure group, which calls for political change in South Sudan through peaceful protest. Kuel was arrested in August 2021, as authorities cracked down on those they believed to be affiliated with the group. His six co-accused – Abraham Awenleith, Wani Michael, Jame David Kolok, Rajab Mohandis, Manas Mathiang, and Daniel Makau – fled the country. They are charged in absentia for crimes against the state and, if convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison.
Kuel is appearing before a special court, created in September by the Chief Justice on written authorization from the office of the president. The court is also hearing charges brought against Abraham Chol Maketh, a self-proclaimed prophet who, last year, said he foresaw the Salva Kiir government being overthrown before the end of that year. He is charged with crimes against the state alongside four others.
Both Maketh and Kuel have already experienced very serious violations of their rights including having been arbitrarily detained for over a year before being presented before court and denied adequate medical care or regular access to lawyers during detention. Although the prosecution was instructed in February by the Court of Appeal to present the two before a court and move the case forward for trial, the prosecution took no action until August.
Kuel’s lawyers learned about his first-ever court appearance of October 3 two days prior through unofficial channels, and were not informed about four new charges against him. Similarly, Maketh’s lawyers only had three days to prepare for his first court appearance. On October 5, prison authorities denied access to both men’s lawyers.
These blatant rights violations raise serious doubts about the likelihood that they can get a fair trial going forward, in addition to well-founded concerns about political interference.
Human Rights Watch has previously called on authorities to drop the charges against the two men and to end their detention without trial.
South Sudan has international obligations to respect rights to freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, and association. These current prosecutions are part of a longstanding pattern of politically motivated arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of government critics that is shrinking civic space in the country. Instead, the government should create an environment where people can exercise their rights without fear. It should start by halting these prosecutions and dropping all charges against the accused.
South Sudan’s judiciary has a critical role to play in defending the rule of law and in building an open and democratic society rooted in respect for justice, human rights, and freedoms. Its independence should be guaranteed to deliver justice for all, regardless of political affiliations.