In South Sudan, authorities attempted to inflate the age of juvenile offenders to be able to carry out executions, an advocacy group has warned.
On Wednesday, 12 teenagers escaped the death penalty in the country – eight of them were sentenced to five years in a reformatory house, while four others got two-year probation for killing another teenager in a gang rivalry last February.
Defense lawyer and executive director of the Human Rights Observatory, a Juba-based legal rights advocacy group, Godfrey Victor Bula told The Globe Post that prison terms are “severe,” considering the fact that some of the teenagers are students. However, the children may be considered lucky.
The Human Rights Observatory provided free legal assistance to the juveniles. Bula said his group intervened after the investigator had inflated the ages of the children – something that he says would have made it possible for teenagers to be sentenced to death.
The twelve juveniles aged ten to 17 were arrested the same day they were accused of collectively killing another boy with machetes, sticks, and knives in an act of “mob justice” in Dongoda village, just a few kilometers north of Juba.
According to court testimony, two rival gangs of teenagers – D12 and Out-Laws – were fighting over control of certain neighborhoods in the area. In the ensuing violence, the deceased, who belonged to the D12 gang, was killed by members of the rival group.
“Given the fact that they are all under eighteen, which means they are children, they will not be sentenced to the death penalty as provided in section 09 of the Penal Code Act 2008 nor would they be sentenced to imprisonment but they will be sentenced and sent to a reformatory,” presiding Judge Nicolah Makur Akol said.
Akol said the dozen juveniles will also pay a “blood compensation” of up to 12 cows and dozens of goats to the aggrieved family.
Since the eight teenagers sentenced to five years in a reformatory house are students, they will be allowed to attend classes each morning, but then will have to report back to the reformatory.
Joseph Ladu, a parent of one of the sentenced children, said he was satisfied with the ruling.
“The judge’s decision is good because given that these are children, the sentenced ensures that their future is not wasted for the fact that they will be allowed to go to school, is good,” he said.
According to Bula, the accused children were acself-defense defense during the fighting with teenagers from the rival gang.
“It shouldn’t have been excessive, it shouldn’t have been aggressive, the judgment has to be proportionate looking at the age and the future of these children. All these factors should have been taken into considerations when a decision has to be issued against a juvenile,” he said.
Bula noted that dozens of people are currently on the death row in South Sudan, including children who have been tried in court without the help of a lawyer.
According to a recent Amnesty International report, there are currently 342 people on the death row in South Sudan.
“South Sudan has carried out more executions this year than it has done in any year since gaining independence in 2011, with a child among seven people known to have been executed so far in 2018,” the organization said, noting that it based its findings on interviews with legal professionals and government officials working in the country’s justice sector.
But South Sudan Presidency spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny rejected the claims, saying no one had been executed in South Sudan since 2011 and a moratorium had been placed on the practice since 2013.
Despite the statement, he noted that the death penalty remained on the statute books.
“If you kill a person, you will be executed,” he said.