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Kenyans jailed for life in South Sudan cry for justice

NAIROBI: A journey for greener pastures in South Sudan has turned into a nightmare for four Kenyans.

When they left Kenya to go and work for a small technology company in Africa’s youngest nation, Anthony Keya, Boniface Muriuki, Ravi Ghaghda and Anthony Mwadime never knew they’d be caught up in a vicious business fight that has now seen them condemned to life in prison.

The charge? The four Kenyans, and their boss, plus 11 other South Sudanese allegedly conned President Salva Kiir!

The four Kenyans have now been jailed for life for what the court saidwas an attempt to defraud Kiir's office in the capital Juba of Sh1.4 billion ($14 million).

Their arrest and conviction paints a picture of business rivalry among South Sudanese siblings gone wrong – with Kenyans caught in the middle, and now, paying for it.

Their families, after nearly a year fighting the conviction, have turned to President Uhuru Kenyatta's Government to help secure their release. The four were represented in the forgery suit by a South Sudanese lawyer.

Their families back in Kenya are protesting the hefty punishment handed by a High Court in Juba last week, saying their kin were not given a fair hearing. The ruling barred the filing of an appeal within 30 days, as the sentence has to be submitted to the Supreme Court for a procedural confirmation.

Several lawyers, who had taken up the matter, promptly dropped it, citing possible intimidation.

The four Kenyans and the South Sudanese were all employees of Click technologies, a small technology retailer that sold electronic equipment including cameras to the State.

Security Officer

The company was owned by John Agou, a former security officer in South Sudan's presidency, and his wife Anyeth Chat Bor.

Mr Agou was accused of conspiring with his employees to swindle the Office of the President of South Sudan and other ministries, where the firm is accused of receiving payments for no deliveries made. 

He is also said to have forged the presidential seal in an attempt to withdraw the funds from the Treasury of the young nation, which is already facing a biting shortage of foreign currencies.

The charges read out in court indicate the employees conspired with their boss to make the presidential seal with the intent to defraud.

In total, the 16 were found guilty of having stolen more than Sh2 billion ($14.4 million and South Sudan Pound 30.99 million), which they have also been directed to repay. Some 17 vehicles belonging to the firm and other office equipment were put up for auction to recover part of the funds feared to have been lost.

"They had been released after National Security Service found nothing on them but they were re-arrested and subsequently detained," documents on the case read.

The four were charged alongside 12 South Sudanese who met a similar fate of life in prison and asked to reimburse Kiir's office. The life sentence will run concurrently with another 64 years for each of the former employees of Click Technologies Ltd.

Distraught Sisters

Sisters of three of the convicts told The Standard yesterday that their respective families were in agony over the possibility of never seeing their kin again. The distraught sisters claimed the four were innocent and may have been victims of a fight between their former bosses John Agou and his business rivals keen on winning State contracts.

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho said Kenya could not "arm-twist South Sudan" to release the suspects after the matter went viral on Twitter under the hashtag #SouthSudanFive. Mr Ghaghda's family has sought the intervention of the United Nations headquarters in Switzerland, saying the suspects stood no chance of getting a fair hearing.

Among the questions the families have raised is how the 16 could all be handed equal sentences yet it was unlikely that they had committed exactly the same offences, if any. Their families say business rivalry between Agou and his stepbrother Athorbei Gaddafi led to their conviction as the latter has close relations to people managing South Sudan's Government affairs.

The two (Agou and Gaddafi) allegedly had a joint venture, which was supplying office stationery to the Kiir's Government between 2011 and 2013 but Gaddafi was arrested by the National Security Service( NSS). Upon release, Agou had already started his own business and that is when they fell out.

They claimed Gaddafi went to Nairobi where he was living and he allegedly set up his brother on account that their company used to swindle the Government.

On May 29, 2015 NSS officials went to Click offices, in Juba and arrested Agou and his employees including five Kenyans.

A Kenyan who was working in a separate company also owned by Agou told The Standard he was threatened when he left for South Sudan to testify against Gaddafi.

Dan (not real name due to security reasons) was also employed by Agou and he had been called to testify before justice Lado Arminto Sikot but Gaddafi allegedly called his mother and warned her that "if anything happens to your son in South Sudan do not blame me".

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