The Crime of Striving for Peace in South Sudan

Peter Biar Ajak

Some of the below summarises a media statement released by Jared Genser of Perseus Strategies, an international human rights lawyer representing Peter Biar Ajak pro bono.

Peter Biar Ajak is a South Sudanese Christian, economist, academic and champion of peace. He is a good friend of Anglican International Development and shares our vision to transform lives in South Sudan in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter envisions the future South Sudan as a peaceful country governed by leaders who sacrifice their own self-interests for the benefit of the people they serve. As a result, he is in prison.

Peter as a teenager in Philadelphia
Peter as a teenager in Philadelphia

Like many South Sudanese, Peter spent much of his childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp. As a teenager, he was relocated to Philadelphia in the USA as part of a refugee programme and graduated from La Salle University before going on to study at the Harvard Kennedy School. He subsequently became the first South Sudanese person to study at Cambridge University, where he stood as a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Studies. Peter decided to return to South Sudan to pursue peace and progress, working with the World Bank and the International Growth Centre. He is widely respected in the academic sphere and even founded the ‘Wrestling for Peace’ initiative which brings people together across tribal lines through the traditional sport of South Sudanese wrestling. This is not the work of a man who is aiming to ‘disturb the peace’.

Wrestling for Peace
Peter’s Wrestling for Peace initiative (Photo – Carl de Souza)

Peter was arrested by the powerful South Sudanese National Security Service (NSS) on July 28th, 2018 at Juba International Airport while awaiting a flight to Aweil to celebrate Martyrs’ Day, an annual commemoration to those who died during South Sudan’s struggle for independence. The arrest was not ordered by the court. The NSS imprisoned Peter in the notorious Blue House Prison in Juba where he remained uncharged for eight months, denied many rights such as access to legal counsel. During that time, he was also subjected to prolonged solitary confinement which is unlawful under South Sudan’s national constitution (because it prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment). He often received just one meal a day and had limited access to medical care, even when he became seriously ill. Thankfully, he has since recovered.

Initially, authorities investigated Peter’s various peace-building activities, media appearances and public statements for potential treason and terrorism charges but according to Peter’s international counsel Jared Genser of Perseus Strategies, these endeavours are protected under international law. Peter was detained for the following eight months without being charged with a crime or appearing before a court. When he was eventually charged in March 2019, the alleged crimes did not relate to the original arrest but to a prison uprising that occurred in October 2018 – some of Peter’s fellow detainees seized arms and protested the various abuses of human rights that are common place in the Blue House. However, all evidence during the trial confirmed that Peter had not been involved in the unrest and had even worked as a mediator to bring the uprising to an end. The judge dismissed all charges against Peter relating to the prison revolt.

Despite this, a new charge was brought against Peter relating to a brief interview he gave with Voice of America during the prison revolt in which he gives his view on the reasons for the unrest:

You know my main worry is about the safety of everybody that is here. Of course, the situation is quite delicate, and it’s quite unfortunate that things have turned out to be in this case. Of course, I’ve been getting briefed about the campaign that is going on about my release, but mind you I’m not the only prisoner that is here. There are a lot of prisoners that are here and many have been detained for years. And no one has been speaking on their behalf. And, some of these people, they feel frustrated, they feel that they’re not being listened to, they’re not being heard, and as a result, they took this kind of action. So the way I look at this actually, is a result of frustration of how these young people are feeling. Their case are not being heard, they’re not being got before a judge. Some people have never even appeared before a committee to investigate them. So they feel that no one is listening to them, and as a result they feel like they have to take this drastic action.

Peter was convicted on 11th June 2019 under Section 80 of South Sudan’s Penal Code which prohibits ‘Participating in [a] gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry’. This charge does not match the purported crime of stating public facts in a brief interview, excerpted above. It is bewildering that this could even be considered a crime in the first place.

Peter Biar Ajak at his trial
Peter Biar Ajak (centre) at his trial

Mr Genser submitted a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention the day following Peter’s conviction and gave this statement:

Peter Biar Ajak was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison simply for giving a radio interview. This represents an egregious violation of South Sudan’s Constitution and international law, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression.  Moreover, throughout his detention, he has been repeatedly denied his due process rights, including access to counsel.

To rectify this injustice, President Kiir should use the power of his office to issue a pardon, as he has done several times before.  Just as he pardoned political rival Riek Machar and over fifty others in the name of peace, so too should he pardon Ajak, South Sudan’s champion of peace.

Internationally, numerous influential individuals have openly condemned the arbitrary detention of Peter Biar Ajak since his arrest nearly a year ago. US Congresswoman Madeleine Dean drew attention to Peter’s situation in the House of Representatives in February 2019. Several senators, both Republican and Democrat, have called for Peter’s release. Despite this, Peter remains incarcerated for actions that do not amount to criminal activity in any stable democracy. Furthermore, President Salva Kiir ordered the release of all political prisoners in September 2018, following the signing of the peace agreement to bring civil war to an end. A few token releases happened and a few weeks later, President Kiir’s spokesman said that ‘There are no political detainees in South Sudan…We have prisoners of war, and not political detainees.’

Peter Biar Ajak Kennedy School
A symbolic seat was kept for Peter at a recent Harvard Kennedy School class reunion.

This is obviously an untrue statement as Peter and others, who are not prisoners of war, remain behind bars in a flagrant contravention of human rights. In the face of such duplicity and tyranny, it is difficult to know how to move forward. However, we share Peter’s belief that the God of all things is in control and at work, even in the darkest, most desperate circumstances. We know that He will eventually bring oppressors to justice and win victory for His people:

The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalm 9:9-10

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Psalm 46:1-3

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10

Please join us in continuing to pray for Peter – that God would uphold him, that his conviction would be overturned, for protection over his wife and children and ultimately for peace and progress in South Sudan.