A military court in South Sudan sentenced 10 soldiers to prison on Thursday for raping foreign aid workers and killing a journalist in an attack on a hotel in 2016.
The incident took place in the capital city of Juba, as the young country's civil war raged on. Government troops stormed through layer after layer of gates at the Terrain Hotel. Over several hours, the soldiers executed journalist John Gatluak Nhial near a stand of trees and gang-raped humanitarian workers, including an American, an Italian and a Dutch national.
"The soldiers just came to the bathroom where all the girls were hiding and they just picked us out of the bathroom one by one," one of the women in the hotel told NPR's Jason Beaubien after the incident.
Two soldiers were found guilty of being involved in the journalist's murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three soldiers were found guilty of raping aid workers, four of sexual harassment and one of theft and armed robbery. They received prison sentences ranging from seven to 14 years in jail, according to Amnesty International.
One soldier was acquitted for lack of evidence, while another died in jail during the trial.
The court also ordered the government to pay $4,000 to each victim. It directed the government to pay $2.2 million to the owner of the hotel for ransacked and looted property, and 51 cattle to the relatives of the slain journalist, according to Reuters.
The attorney representing the five women who were raped said they were not satisfied by the trial's outcome. "The victims are not relieved by the verdict," Issa Muzamil Sebit said, according to Reuters. He called the compensation "very embarrassing" and "an insult" to each victim.
Jesse Bunch, an American private contractor who was shot and beaten during the attack, told NPR that he has mixed emotions about the convictions. "The very brave women who got involved in telling their stories were doing it because they want to set a standard where this does not continue." In that sense, he said, the verdict contained some hope. "But it's not hopeful given the atrocities that have continued since 2016."
South Sudanese authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured and mistreated people, despite President Salva Kiir's pledge to release detainees, an Amnesty International report released Tuesday stated.
The court decision comes as observers wonder whether Kiir can hold security forces accountable amid allegations of human rights abuses and persistent impunity.
"After much foot dragging, today's convictions and sentences represent a first step towards ending chronic impunity in South Sudan," Seif Magango, Amnesty International deputy director for the region, said in a statement. He added that the convictions "must lead to the crucial next step of ensuring justice for all crimes committed in the ongoing armed conflict."
Jehanne Henry, an associate director in Human Rights Watch's Africa division, told NPR that while the trial was far from perfect, it showed that justice is possible when there is political will. At the same time, "it underlines how little has been done for the vast majority of human rights violations at the hands of soldiers in South Sudan," especially ordinary women who lack the means to put pressure on the government, she said.
Violence and persecution has turned the country into Africa's largest producer of refugees. They are mostly women and children, according to the United Nations.
Aid workers in South Sudan are addressing health issues — such as cholera, malaria and diarrhea – along with their own security risks. By April, 100 aid workers had been killed since conflict broke out in 2013, the U.N said.
As soldiers began to pillage the Terrain Hotel in 2016, aid workers holed up on the second story frantically called U.N. peacekeepers posted a mile down the road. But help never came.
Eventually, most of them were removed from the hotel by armed men who were aligned with the same government troops that raided the building.
The top military officer for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, Kenyan Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, was fired.
Before he was killed, journalist John Gatluak Manguet Nhial told his employer Internews: "Being a journalist in South Sudan is risking one's life. But I have dedicated myself to serving my community through radio as a watchdog, informing them about what the politicians are doing once the citizens elect them to power."