The detention of 2016 Tutu Fellow, Peter Biar Ajak, has ended. His wife Nyathon Hoth Mai confirmed in a Facebook post that he had been released. His release came several days after his pardon was first announced by South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir.
The peace advocate was detained without trial by the South Sudan National Security Service on 28 July and held for almost a year. When he was finally brought to trial on unsubstantiated charges, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. President Kiir issued a decree of pardon on 01 January to 30 people, most for minor offenses. Kiir's list also included two critics of his regime - Peter, and Keribino Agok Wol. Both were detained in 2018.
Wol, a businessman and philanthropist, was accused of fueling subversion. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
At Peter's trial last year, he was initially charged with treason - which the court dismissed - before authorities accused him of disturbing the peace and violence for giving interviews to foreign media critical of the government. His lawyer contested the charges in court as freedom of speech is constitutionally protected in South Sudan. After the verdict was handed down, he said no evidence had been presented to support the sentence.
In December, President Kiir visited an inmate facility in Juba and the pardons followed a few days later. The pardon was read on state-owned TV, however, it took several days for the formal instruction to be processed by the prison. His wife Nyathon noted in her Facebook post after his release of the change in Peter's physical appearance, which showed his ordeal.
Peter's detention was widely condemned by the international community, including the Heads of Mission of Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. They issued a statement saying they were 'deeply troubled by the arrest and ongoing detention,' and reminded the South Sudanese government of its own constitution that guarantees all citizens of the country liberty and security of person, due process, and freedom of expression and association.
AFLI also issued a statement the day after he was arrested on behalf of the Tutu Fellowship. Fellows said they stand in solidarity with Dr Peter Biar Ajak and requested his safe and immediate release. They pointed out that Peter is a renowned rights defender, known for his activism for the achievement of peace, for which he has worked tirelessly and selflessly. At the time, he was the coordinator of South Sudan Young Leaders Forum; a Senior Adviser for the International Growth Centre; and a Founder of the Juba-based Centre for Strategic Analyses and Research. He has also been instrumental to the development of the South Sudan Development Plan; the South Sudan Growth Strategy; and South Sudan Vision 2040, among others.
South Sudan is a landlocked country in Eastern central Africa that gained its independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after a referendum that passed almost unanimously. It has seen decades of conflict and ethnic violence. Human rights organisations say that South Sudan’s government has a poor track record of tolerating dissent. Peter had been publicly critical of the way President Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar approached peace talks to end the civil war. Oil-rich South Sudan returned to civil war in 2013 because of differences between Kiir and Machar.
Peter was one of at least 20,000 children who were dubbed the "lost boys" of Sudan after they were separated from their families during the country's second civil war, which ended in 2005. While many were displaced to refugee camps across East Africa, some were resettled in the United States in the early 2000s, including him. He went on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in Politics and International Studies before returning to South Sudan to help rebuild the country.