South Sudan’s Comboni Missionaries – Sisters, Brothers and Fathers – recently wrote a letter to the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC) petitioning the bishops of the two Sudans to take concrete steps towards the abolition of death penalty in the South. The initiative was catalyzed by the resumption of executions in the new country (at least two men were hanged in South Sudan’s capital Juba and another in Wau between the end of August and the beginning of September) and the appeal of Pope Benedict to the Church in Africa: “Together with the Synod members, I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty” (Africae Munus 83).
The missionaries asked the SCBC meeting in their annual plenary in Juba to write a letter to President Salva Kiir Mayardit calling for a moratorium on executions in South Sudan; write a petition to the Constitutional Review Commission asking for the abolition of death penalty in South Sudan’s Permanent Constitution; (and ask the diocesan Justice & Peace Commissions to partner with humanitarian and civil society groups locally in this campaign for the abolition of death penalty in South Sudan.
In the end the SCBC meeting was mostly taken up with the transfer of the theology section of the main national seminary from Khartoum to Juba and the setup of a SCBC secretariat in Juba. A participant explained that the petition was never read.
However, the initiative hit the headlines in Juba’s media and in the Internet and gathered some support. Biel Boutros Biel, executive director for South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy and a member of South Sudan Civil Society Alliance, welcomed the initiative of the Comboni family. He told the Sudan Tribune website that killing people in the name of punishment “is the most outrageous and inhumane act towards the right to life.” The potential for major miscarriages of justice is also high. Biel described a South Sudanese justice system chaotic with cases of unjust trials involving unrepresented people.
Two more lawyers, human rights activist Elizabeth Ashamu and David Deng from South Sudan Law Society, wrote a piece titled “Potential Paths towards Ending Capital Punishment in South Sudan” and asked President Kiir – who has to approve every single execution after the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence – to put in place a moratorium on executions.
The French embassy in Juba issued an appeal along the same lines on October 10, World Day against the Death Penalty. The message said: “France recognizes the South Sudanese historical and social context which will make the abolition of the death penalty challenging. Such a decision will require great leadership and significant public advocacy. In the interim, given the widely recognized challenges of ensuring the right to a fair trial in South Sudan, France calls for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in South Sudan.” In response, the head of South Sudan Human Rights Commission, Lawrence Korbandy, defended a gradual abolition of death penalty to avoid problems.
There were also some strong voices raised against the abolition of capital punishment. In many of South Sudan’s customary laws, the death penalty can be used to revenge murder: the family of a slain person can pardon the killer, demand compensation or the execution of the offender. There were very heated comments when the initiative of the Comboni Family spilled into the public domain: some people subscribing to the view that if capital punishment is suspended revenge attacks would increase and the security in the country would be compromised.
The initiative of the Comboni Missionaries had the merit of bringing to the public arena the issue of the death penalty while the country should be preparing its permanent Constitution (so far the Constitutional Review Commission, set up in January was unable to meet due to a lack of funds). The Bill of Rights allows death penalty “as punishment for extremely serious offences in accordance with the law” (Article 21.1)
The debate is quite urgent: there are about 180 people sentenced to death in three death rows in Juba, Wau and Malakal prisons. At least, eight people have been executed since Southern independence in July 9, 2011. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights strongly criticized the hanging of the two men in Juba, saying they lacked proper legal assistance. The Ministry of Justice had admitted that only six prisoners have received Government legal aid since the system was put in place in 2006.
Amnesty International described the two hangings of August 21 as a “violation of the right to life and as the ultimate cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment” and accused South Sudan of contravening global standards, including the UN Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty. The group pointed out that “weaknesses in the country’s criminal justice system, primarily the non-observance of fair trial standards, such as the lack of provision for legal representation for all accused persons, emphasizes the need to abolish the death penalty without delay.”
Retired Bishop Paride Taban of Torit, a staunch defender of human rights in South Sudan, supports the end of capital punishment in the country. He commented that a dead person cannot do anything while inmates serving sentences can produce food and other goods for their country and above all they can be transformed. He said inmates are not criminals anymore. Criminals are those at large being hunted by authorities, those who have not yet faced justice.
Joe Vieira, Comboni Missionary in Juba
The petition to abolish death penalty is South Sudan can be signed here.