A South Sudanese military court on Thursday sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for the rape of foreign aid workers and the murder of a journalist in a brutal assault on a hotel in Juba, and ordered the government to pay compensation to the victims.
The attack, one of the worst on aid workers in South Sudan’s civil war, took place on July 11, 2016, as President Salva Kiir’s troops won a three-day battle in the capital over opposition forces loyal to ex-Vice President Riek Machar.
Witness accounts said that armed men attacked the Terrain Hotel for several hours, during which victims phoned U.N. peacekeepers stationed a mile away and begged for help, in vain.
The military head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Kenyan Lieutenant General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, was fired over the incident.
The court case was widely seen as a test of will by the government of President Salva Kiir to bring accountability in the military that has long drawn accusations of widespread rights violations and a culture of impunity.
A lawyer for the five rape victims said the verdict was not harsh enough, while rights group Amnesty International called it a first step towards fighting impunity in the war-torn country.
Ten soldiers were handed sentences ranging from seven years to life imprisonment. Eleven were on trial but one was set free due to the lack of charges against him.
“The military court found that the accused here are guilty for their direct responsibility in committing crimes,” said the head of the military court, Brigadier General Neath Almaz Juma, when reading the verdict.
Describing the incident, the manager of the Terrain Hotel, Mike Woodward, told the court that “between 50 and 100” soldiers arrived in the hotel in the afternoon of July 11 and began looting an hour later.
“Five women working with humanitarian organisations were then raped. John Gatluak was shot at 6:15 p.m.,” Woodward said, referring to the South Sudanese journalist who was killed. An American was also shot in the leg, he said.
An American, an Italian and a Dutch were among the rape victims. The court said the government must pay $4,000 to each of them.
It also ordered the government to pay 51 cattle to the relatives of the local journalist who was killed in the raid. The hotel owner is due to receive $2.2 million in compensation for the destruction and looting of his property.
“The victims are not relieved by the verdict,” said Issa Muzamil Sebit, who represented the five rape victims. The $4,000 compensation, he said, is “very embarrassing and is an insult to the victim.” It was not immediately clear if they would appeal.
South Sudan’s war broke out in December 2013, two years after it gained independence from Sudan, following a political disagreement between Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
The violence, often fought along old ethnic rivalries, has killed tens of thousands and uprooted nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 12 million.
As the violence intensified and spread, both local and international aid workers trying to deliver relief to the displaced faced increasingly deadly risks. Nearly 100 aid workers have been killed in the conflict since it started.
Amnesty International said South Sudanese authorities must now go further and create a court to try people accused of atrocities under a now-defunct peace deal signed in 2015.