June 11, 2019 / 11:30 AM / 2 months ago

South Sudan jails prominent economist over media interviews

Peter Biar Ajak, the South Sudan country director for the London School of Economics' International Growth Centre based in Britain, arrives at the courtroom in Juba, South Sudan March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

JUBA (Reuters) - A South Sudanese court sentenced a prominent economist to two years in prison on Tuesday for disturbing the peace because he gave interviews to foreign media after he was arrested on treason charges that were subsequently dropped.

The case of Peter Biar Ajak, a former child refugee who returned to his native South Sudan as an internationally renowned academic, has thrown the spotlight on what rights groups say is repression of dissent in Africa’s youngest country.

Biar fled to the United States as a youth, was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and worked at the World Bank. He became South Sudan country director for the International Growth Centre, part of the London School of Economics.

Biar was arrested in July, 2018 and charged with treason, although a court threw out those charges in April. He had been publicly critical of the way President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar approached peace talks to end the civil war.

Biar’s lawyer said they would appeal his conviction for inciting public violence through speech.

“The decision itself is in conflict with the constitution especially freedom of expression,” he told Reuters. “Peter Biar has been convicted for speaking to VOA (Voice of America) Radio.”

Oil-rich South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 under a peace agreement that ended decades of conflict. But it plunged into civil war in December, 2013 because of a split between Kiir and Machar.

The opposing sides were due to form a unity government on May 12 but the president said it could be delayed by up to a year because there were no funds for disarming and integrating the warring factions.

Writing by Omar Mohammed; editing by Katharine Houreld, editing by Ed Osmond

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