October 25, 2017 / 6:46 PM / 2 months ago

Victims of South Sudan attack on aid workers start testifying from U.S.

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Foreign victims of an attack on aid workers in South Sudan began giving testimony via video link from the United States on Wednesday in the trial of government soldiers accused of murder and gang rape.

The assault on the Terrain Hotel in the South Sudan capital Juba in July 2016, at the end of a battle between government and rebel forces, left a South Sudanese aid worker dead and at least five foreign women raped.

“We had testimony from one of the victims through a video conference,” prosecution lawyer Philips Anyang told Reuters, without giving details. He added that a second victim was scheduled to testify on Thursday.

Six witnesses are to testify from the United States, with the assistance of the FBI. The military trial in Juba is not open to the media.

U.N. investigators and rights groups have frequently accused both the South Sudanese army and rebels of murder, torture and rape, and say such crimes almost always go unpunished.

The civil war, which has killed tens of thousands, broke out in 2013 between the army of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and rebels of former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.

The trial of 12 suspects in the hotel attack is the first prosecution in South Sudan of soldiers accused of committing atrocities. It had been stalled due to a lack of witness evidence.

Previously, the court in Juba demanded witnesses travel to South Sudan to testify, but most were unwilling to do so out of safety and confidentiality concerns. The court has now dropped that requirement.

“For [the court] to concede that point was a sign that they were willing to accept victims’ concerns and victims’ wishes to be a lot more sensitive,” one woman who was raped in the attack told Reuters before the trial began.

Another woman told Reuters before the trial that she had been gang-raped by 15 men in the hotel incident. She said she wanted to testify because most victims of such crimes in South Sudan did not get justice.

“To stand up and put it on the record that these atrocities are being committed by forces ... is an amazing opportunity that I had to take,” she said.

Also testifying will be at least one eyewitness to the murder of the South Sudanese aid worker, John Gatluak, a Nuer who had worked for U.S.-funded organization Internews, Anyang told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Denis Duma; editing by Elias Biryabarema and Andrew Roche

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