Justice Denied By “Lost” File

I spent 35 years working with files.  My first real job out of college was as a consultant who designed filing systems for big organizations.  Later, I worked as a manager overseeing the records programs of several organizations from the inside.  There isn’t much about filing that is a mystery to me.  I won’t bore readers with the details. 

I mention this because of a human rights case that has come up in South Sudan.  On July 11, 2016, 10 soldiers raped at least 5 aid workers and killed a journalist during an attack on the Terrain Hotel in Juba.  They were convicted in September 2018.  The court awarded $4,000 USD to each of the rape and sexual assault survivors.  The journalist’s family received 51 cows. 

As you might expect, the victims and their families weren’t impressed by this settlement.  Sabrina Prioli, one of the rape victims said, “after the compensation was awarded, I felt violated again, I felt raped again by the justice system.  As readers will know, this is a sentiment that rape survivors around the world express repeatedly. Prioli went on to say, “Now we appeal because we want a formal compensation system that takes into account the gravity of the crime.”

The court sentenced the soldiers to between 10 and 14 years in jail. The convicted soldiers also contested the verdict.  They maintain their innocence.  So, both sides appealed.  We should also mention that, under South Sudanese law, cases involving civilian victims are supposed to be tried in civilian courts.  This case wasn’t.

This is where our story gets interesting.  The court sent the paper case file, including the judgement, to the office of President Salva Kiir for confirmation.  His office received it on September 6, 2018.  It has gone missing ever since.  Neither the President nor his government have explained its disappearance.  This missing file is now being used as an excuse to hold up the appeal process.  As of today, this has been going on for a year.

This story is not credible for three reasons.  To begin with, no competent legal records department would send the original file to the president.  They would send a notarized copy of the file.  If the law required the original to be sent, records staff would make a notarized copy of the file for safekeeping.

Second, nobody in the president’s office would risk losing that file.  It would be carefully locked in a secure file cabinet.  Third, there are only so many places a missing file can be.  It might take a day or two to locate a missing file.  It never takes a year.

Even so, let’s accept that the paper file went missing.  In today’s office, even in South Sudan, staff create 93% of documents using computers. They save the electronic versions of all those electronic documents on the network.  The IT department backs up the data on that network as part of the disaster recovery program.

The documents in that case file can be recovered.  Signatures would be missing but they can be re-certified.  Some documents might have been written by hand but usually that information gets transcribed.  If not, the authors of those documents can be tracked down and told to resubmit them.  In almost all cases, they will have a copy of what they wrote.

So, I don’t believe that the file is missing. I also don’t believe that it can’t be reconstructed. I think that the president has deliberately destroyed the file. Or, he may have hidden it somewhere. I say this because this is not the only case where the government of South Sudan seems to have turned a blind eye to rape by government forces.

A case in the village of Kubi has been going nowhere since February 2017. The government dismissed a multiple rape case in Bentiu from November 2018 as “false”. They simply disregarded the evidence from there. The government seems to be trying to avoid accountability for these incidents, and with good reason

These cases would set a precedent that would rock the country.  Rape by government forces is rampant in South Sudan and if all the perpetrators were brought to justice, the impact on the armed forces would be crippling.  It appears that the president prefers that these incidents continue with impunity.  That way, he doesn’t have to face the damage they do to his reputation worldwide

Justice can’t be denied because of a missing file. In his Report on Conflict Related Sexual Violence, the United Nations Secretary General wrote “I urge the Government of South Sudan to rigorously and expeditiously investigate all incidents of sexual violence and hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of rank. I further urge the Government to establish the Hybrid Court without delay, to provide comprehensive services to survivors, to extend services into remote locations and to grant full access to humanitarian organizations assisting victims and displaced civilians.”

The Supreme Court of South Sudan must order that this file be produced.  Otherwise, the court should order that it be reconstructed.  If someone destroyed the file, they should be charged with obstruction of justice.  If the president hid or destroyed the file, he should be impeached.  We need to get to the bottom of this and learn what really happened.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

United Nations
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch


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