JUBA, Apr 24 – South Sudan’s government announced Thursday it was dropping charges against four alleged top rebels on trial for attempting to overthrow the government, in an effort to promote peace and end a four-month-old civil war.
“The leadership has decided that for the purpose of promoting dialogue, reconciliation, harmony among the South Sudanese people… I should use my powers to stay the proceedings,” Justice Minister Paulion Wanawilla told reporters.
“To stay the proceedings legally means that we have to write to the court to not continue against most of the accused,” the minister said, adding that charges against former vice president Riek Machar, who fled the capital and is leading the rebellion, still stood.
The four alleged rebels were arrested in Juba after fighting broke out between members of the presidential guard and rapidly escalated into all-out war between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and defectors and ethnic militia loyal to Machar.
President Kiir accused Machar and his allies of attempting a coup, and initially 11 of his loyalists were put on trial. Machar denied the allegation, and in turn has branded Kiir a “genocidal leader” who started the war by carrying out a purge.
Seven of the original 11 detainees were freed in January as part of a regional peace effort, but the release of the remaining four has been a standing rebel demand and their trial has been seen as a barrier to progress in peace talks that have been held in Ethiopia.
According to the minister, the four detainees were likely to be freed on Friday and all charges dropped.
The move comes amid worsening violence in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation which only won independence from Khartoum in 2011. The conflict has already left thousands and possibly tens of thousands dead, and over a million displaced.
Both sides have been implicated in atrocities and war crimes. Last week the rebels were accused of murdering hundreds of civilians after capturing the oil hub of Bentiu, and a pro-government mob killed dozens of civilians in an attack on a UN base in Bor where they were sheltering.
The peace gesture by the government also comes the day after France and the United States called for the UN Security Council to consider imposing sanctions both against members of the South Sudanese government and the rebels responsible for the violence.