JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The trial for rapes and murder allegedly committed by South Sudan army soldiers one year ago at the Terrain hotel could be jeopardized if the victims don't come forward to testify, said a military court Thursday.
"I demand the names and presence of those who were raped to come here," said Deng Manyiel, one of four judges hearing the trial in its fifth day of hearings. Head judge, Brigadier General Knight Briano, told The Associated Press that if the victims do not identify the accused, there is no legal way they can be convicted of rape or murder.
Twelve South Sudanese soldiers currently stand trial for the gang rapes of five foreign aid workers and the murder of one local journalist last July when fighting broke out in Juba, the capital. If convicted, the accused could face the death sentence.
To date however, witness testimony by four employees of the hotel, who identified four of the accused, has only pointed to charges of looting.
"There's a fear that the rapes and murder won't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," said Philips Anyang Ngong, a private prosecutor hired by Terrain.
Ngong partially blames the lack of convincing evidence on Internews, an international organization whose journalist was murdered and several members of their staff raped. He said there's been a "complete failure to cooperate" on their part. The prosecution said it has been waiting for supporting documents from Internews that could help shore up the murder charge.
However Internews said it is cooperating with authorities. "We are following the proceedings and continuing to cooperate with government officials and the FBI," said a spokesman for Internews.
The lead prosecutor told the court that the rape victims are coming "step by step," yet admitted that they still weren't "here yet." Survivors of the assaults say they're not going to testify unless they're guaranteed protection.
"We've been given no assurances or information on the procedures they have in place to facilitate witnesses coming forward," one of the survivors told AP. She said she's been in touch with the FBI who is acting as a liaison between the victims and the prosecution on the ground.
"Most of us are still uncomfortable about directly communicating with the South Sudanese," she said.
Amnesty International, which is following the trial, said the court should give assurances to the survivors.
"First, the court must take steps to protect the identity of the victims from becoming public, and second, it should explore using video conferencing for testimony and cross-examination," said Joanne mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty. "Moreover, even without the testimony of the direct victims of rape, the perpetrators could be potentially convicted based on witness testimony - if not of rape specifically then at least of sexual assault."