On July 28, 2018, South Sudanese authorities reportedly arrested Peter Biar Ajak, a University of Cambridge PhD student, in apparent retaliation for his peaceful human rights activism.
On July 28, Mr. Ajak traveled to Juba Airport, intending to fly to Aweil to attend the Red Army Commemoration scheduled for the following day, when he was arrested by National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) forces. As of this report, he is in Jebel, where he is reportedly detained at NISS headquarters. On August 17, it was reported that authorities charged Mr. Ajak with “treason,” “concealing treason,” and “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to South Sudan.”
Mr. Ajak is known as a prominent political activist who has publicly opposed the South Sudanese government. He is a founding member and director of C-SAR, an independent think tank, founding chairman of South Sudan Young Leaders Forum, and a regular contributor to NTV’s AMLive show in which he comments on political issues.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and prosecution of a student activist in apparent retaliation for his peaceful human rights activism — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from arbitrary arrests and prosecution of scholars and students for such peaceful activities. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of expression, and undermine democratic society generally.
UPDATE: On March 21, 2019, for the first time since his arrest, Mr. Ajak appeared in court with six others who have been imprisoned in the NISS headquarters’ “Blue House,” a prison in Jebel notorious for its alleged use of torture on detainees. The court charged them with “sabotage,” “insurgency,” and “weapons possession,” for allegedly staging an uprising in October 2018 in the Blue House. Mr. Ajak and his co-defendants have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, Mr. Ajak and his co-defendants could face the death sentence.
UPDATE: On March 25, the trial against Ajak and his co-defendants continued. Mr. Ajak disputed a document presented at the court hearing, arguing “the investigation was conducted under gunpoint to my head.” No charges have been brought against Mr. Ajak in relation to his arrest in July 2018.
UPDATE: On April 26, 2019, a court dropped charges of treason against Mr. Ajak. Judge Sumaya Saleh Abdalla ordered that Mr. Ajak be tried for “disturbing the peace” for allegedly participating in “media interviews that have created fear and insecurity in the public which is against the law.” If convicted, Mr. Ajak could be sentenced to between six months and three years’ imprisonment.