JUBA (Reuters) - A South Sudanese court threw out charges including treason against a prominent economist on Friday but said he still must face trial on new charges of disturbing the peace over interviews he gave to foreign media.
The case of Peter Biar Ajak, a former child refugee who returned to his native South Sudan as an internationally renowned academic, has thrown a spotlight on what rights groups say is repression of dissent in Africa's youngest country.
The South Sudan country director for the International Growth Centre which is part of the London School of Economics, Biar was arrested in July 2018 and later charged with treason. He had been critical of the way President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar approached peace talks to end a civil war.
“The previous charges have been rubbished and dropped by the court because the prosecution couldn’t prove each of those charges," Ajak's lawyer Philip Anyang said.
However, judge Sumaya Saleh Abdalla ordered him to be tried on new charges.
"Biar and the other detainees inside the National Security Prison participated in media interviews that have created fear and insecurity in the public which is against the law," the judge told the special tribunal at the High Court.
Biar's lawyer said he was innocent of all charges, which could fetch between six months and three years imprisonment.
South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan in 2011 under a peace agreement that ended decades of conflict, was swiftly plunged into civil war because of a split between Kiir and Machar. The two leaders finally signed a peace deal in September, promising to form a unity government by May 12.
Rights groups say South Sudan's security services have a history of detaining people and subjecting them to torture and other ill-treatment, creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship amongst activists and journalists.
"The charges, at least in the case of Peter, are an attempt to criminalise free expression and the legitimate work of human rights defenders and activists," said Human Rights Watch South Sudan researcher Nyagoah Tut Pur.
At Friday's hearing the prosecution referred to an interview Biar gave to Voice of America during a stand-off between prisoners and guards at the National Security Service (NSS) headquarters on October 7, 2018.
Biar fled to the United States as a youth, was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and later worked at the World Bank.
Niki Frencken, South Sudan researcher for Amnesty International, said the tribunal, which is trying six other people including businessman and philanthropist Kerbino Agok Wol, had not addressed the reason for his original detention by the NSS.
"If you look at the last couple of years, you see an increase in the power of the National Security Service. It's been operating outside the rule of law and without checks and balances," Frencken said.
(Writing by Hereward Holland)