South Sudan court jails economist for two years for espionage

Juba (AFP) –


A South Sudanese court on Tuesday jailed a Harvard-educated economist for two years for spying after he gave interviews to foreign media, in a case that has attracted international criticism.

Peter Biar Ajak, 34, was detained in July 2018 and held for eight months without charge in the National Security Service headquarters -- the dreaded "Blue House" -- with limited contact with the outside world.

Biar and six others were later charged in March this year over a riot at the Blue House in October 2018, in which detainees reportedly briefly overpowered guards before surrendering.

Biar -- who has worked for the World Bank and was studying for his doctorate in Britain's University of Cambridge -- managed to give an interview at the time to Voice of America, a US-government funded news service.

He and his fellow accused all pleaded not guilty to numerous charges related to the riot, including possession of firearms and disorder. A charge of terrorism against Biar was later dropped.

But prosecutors argued Biar's interviews amounted to espionage. Judge Sumeya Saleh Abdallah found him guilty of spying and sentenced him to prison.

"He is being charged for speaking to VOA. And if that is the case, then the right of freedom of expression is on trial," one of Biar's lawyer, Philip Anyang, told reporters outside court.

Biar's wife, Nyathon Hotmai, told AFP she was grateful her husband was no longer in the much-feared Blue House. The detention facility has been described by Amnesty International as rife with abuses.

"I won't say it is fair. But it is better than when they were inside there," she said.

Biar had been outspoken in his criticism of the new country's leadership and its failure to stop more than five years of civil war in which nearly 400,000 people are thought to have died.

His arrest last year was condemned by the United States.

One of Biar's co-accused, businessman and philanthropist Kerbino Wol, also appeared in court Tuesday. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for terrorism, spying and insurgency.

His lawyer, Ajak Mayol Bior, said his client was innocent and they would be appealing the sentence.

South Sudan descended into war in 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy and fellow former rebel leader Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

Under a peace agreement signed in September, Kiir agreed to set up a unity government with Machar, who is to return from exile, but that has been delayed by six months until November.