Paulino Winawilla Unago, the minister of justice in South Sudan [JURIST backgrounder] announced that a group of political leaders, including former Vice President Riek Machar [BBC profile], could face treason charges for their role in an alleged coup in December. Speaking to a group of reporters on Tuesday [Al Jazeera report], the justice minister said that "anybody who intends to change a constitutional government or to suspend the constitution or abrogate the constitution by force commits treason." While the group of political leaders were released from detention on Wednesday in order to quash fears that the charges could jeopardize the recent ceasefire deal [BBC report], the justice minister maintained that they will still face trial [Al Jazeera report].
The conflict in South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, has been characterized by ethnic and sectarian violence. Last week, Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] called for [JURIST report] South Sudan, the African Union and the UN [official websites] to support an international inquiry to investigate targeted attacks on civilians based on ethnicity. Last month, UN officials reported [Guardian report] that they discovered three mass grave sites in South Sudan and announced that the death toll in the conflict may be in the thousands already. The US government deployed [JURIST report] 150 military personnel in December in preparation for possible evacuation of US citizens from South Sudan. The UN Mission in South Sudan [official website] began evacuating [JURIST report] all non-critical staff earlier last month after an assault on a base that killed 20 ethnic Dinka civilians and two UN peacekeepers. In April, prior to the current conflict, the UN Mission urged [JURIST report] South Sudan to do more to protect civilians from violence.