Thirteen South Sudanese soldiers accused of raping five foreign aid workers and killing their local colleague appeared before a military court on Tuesday, a case seen as a test of the government’s ability to try war crimes.
The attack, one of the worst on aid workers in South Sudan’s civil war, took place on July 11, 2016 as President Salva Kiir’s troops won a three-day battle in Juba over opposition forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
Witnesses told Reuters at the time that armed men attacked the Terrain Hotel in the capital Juba for several hours. Victims phoned U.N. peacekeepers stationed a mile away and begged for help, but none came, the witnesses said.
The military head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission was fired and the political head resigned over the incident.
“What is concerned here for the court is to address the case in a proper way,” Chief Prosecutor Abukuk Mohammed Ramadan said in opening remarks.
U.N. investigators and rights group have frequently accused both the army and rebels of murder, torture and rape since the civil war began in 2013, and say the crimes almost always go unpunished.
Describing the incident, the manager of the Terrain Hotel, Mike Woodward, told the court that “between 50 to 100” soldiers arrived in the hotel in the afternoon of July 11 and began looting an hour later.
“Five women working with humanitarian organizations were then raped. John Gatluak was shot at 6:15 pm,” Woodward said.
Peter Malual, the defendants’ lawyer, dismissed the charges saying evidence provided by Woodward was not sufficient to prove the allegations.
“What I know the area was under operation at the time and rebels were controlling the area,” Malual said.
Prosecutors told Reuters the murderers face a minimum of 10 years in jail with a fine paid to the victim’s family, or a maximum of the death penalty. Rapists face up to 14 years.
The three-year conflict has fractured the country along ethnic lines – Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, Machar is a Nuer – and forced a quarter of the 12 million-strong population to flee their homes.
Court officials said the trial would resume on June 6.