South Sudan’s Minister of Justice says former Vice President Riek Machar should be tried for treason along with six of the 11 detainees, a move that could make already troubled peace talks even more difficult.
Paulino Wanawilla Unago, minister of justice, said on Tuesday he believed there was enough of a case to take Machar and his six associates, who include Pagan Amum, the former Secretary General of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to court for treason.
“Anybody who intends to change a constitutional government or to suspend the constitution or abrogate the constitution by force commits treason,” Unago told reporters on Tuesday. “We believe they are going to be answerable for the coup before the court.”
Machar, who is now in hiding, dismissed the allegation, saying Kiir had taken advantage of an outbreak of fighting to round up political rivals.
President Salva Kiir accused Machar, the vice president he sacked in July, of launching a coup in the world’s newest country.
But first he said the president needed to sanction the treason charge, which carries the death penalty in South Sudan if a pardon is not first granted by the president.
Unago cushioned the blow by saying seven other political figures, arrested after the violence erupted, would be released due to lack of evidence. Six of the seven would be released on condition of bail, he said, and would be transferred to a neighbouring state like Kenya because of concerns for their safety.
Trade of blame
His concession for their release partly meets one of the rebels’ demands at the negotiations. However, they could still face trial in South Sudan if further investigations linked them to the alleged coup, the justice minister said.
But both sides have accused the other of continuing the violence and the discussions have been suspended until Feb. 7.
“If the political detainees are not released by Feb. 7 then I don’t see the political talks going anywhere,” said a South Sudanese diplomat in Addis Ababa.
“But at the same time you cannot release the suspects without the legal process taking its course.”
Diplomats say the deep ethnic, political and personal grievances will be hard to overcome when talks restart.
Fighting broke out between rival groups in the presidential guard in the capital Juba in mid December and quickly spread to oil-producing areas, largely along ethnic lines.
The violence has killed thousands of civilians and driven more than half a million from their homes.
Under heavy pressure from regional powers, the United States, the United Nations and other key donors, both sides agreed to meet in neighbouring Ethiopia, then on Thursday signed a ceasefire. But both sides have accused the other of continuing the violence and the discussions have been suspended until Feb. 7.