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South Sudan begins trial of 13 soldiers accused of rape, murder in July 2016

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Rwandan peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stand guard inside their compound in South Sudan's capital, Juba, July 20, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)

A South Sudan military court has begun the trial sessions of 13 government troops suspected of raping foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist in the capital Juba last July, as the world's youngest nation is still striving to restore stability and maintain security amid a four-year-long deadly civil war.

"There is a crime of murder, we have a crime of raping, we have a crime of looting and we have a crime of damaging property. There were a lot of investigations that have been taking place," said Chief Military Prosecutor Abubakr Mohamed Ramadan on Tuesday.

According to what witnesses told Human Rights Watch, on July 11, 2016, some 50 to 100 soldiers stormed Terrain Hotel, which then housed some 50 employees of foreign organizations, and began damaging the compound and went on a looting spree in it.

"Five women working with humanitarian organizations were then raped. John Gatluak [the local journalist] was shot at 6:15 p.m." local time, said the hotel manager, Mike Woodward, who was also one of the witnesses.

A report from a special United Nations' probe showed that desperate victims even called up the peacekeepers with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), stationed just 1.2 kilometers away, begging for help, but all to no avail. The UN mission, composed of some 13,000 uniformed personnel, showed "a chaotic and ineffective response" during the July fighting, it added.

The July incident came at the end of a three-day fighting between government forces led by President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to his then Vice President Riek Machar as the pair had held a meeting in Juba. More than 300 people were killed in the clashes.

Members of opposition troops loyal to South Sudan's former Vice President Riek Machar hold weapons near their base in Thonyor, Leer county, South Sudan, April 11, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The UN mission then came under fire by rights groups for its inability to safeguard civilians' rights in the restive African country. The military head of the UNMISS was also sacked and its political head resigned over the incident.  

"What is concerned here for the court is to address the case in a proper way," added Ramadan in opening remarks.

According to court officials, the trial would resume on June 6. The case can also be perceived as a test of the government's capability to try war crimes.

A bloody civil war in South Sudan began in December 2013, when President Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup against him. The two sides then got involved in a cycle of retaliatory killings that have split the impoverished country along ethnic lines between the rival communities of Dinka and Nuer, killing thousands of people.

A peace agreement convinced Machar to return to the capital but eruption of July fighting forced Machar to flee the country and his loyal forces go on skirmishes with the government troops almost across the country, raising the death toll of the persisting civil war.

Numerous international attempts to reach a truce between the warring sides have failed.

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