Pleas for justice on behalf of a South Sudanese political prisoner, jailed for criticizing his homeland’s leaders, will be made outside the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting on Friday. Supporters of Peter Biar Ajak, who was detained two months ago and is yet to be formally charged, are planning a rally in Manhattan to call for the release of their friend, as well as all South Sudanese political prisoners.
“It’s really important for the UN General Assembly, world leaders, and people to hear this story, and to understand that South Sudan is in violation of their own constitution and human rights laws,” said Nicole Wilson, a friend of Biar’s who is working to organize the march. “Peter has so many friends, he is cared about by so many people, he is an important mentor to so many people, so many youth have relied on him. We’re not going to forget he’s there, we’re going to keep fighting until he’s out.”
Peter Biar was arrested on July 28 as he arrived at an airport near Juba, South Sudan. Two months later, he has not yet been charged. South Sudanese sources previously Biar was charged with treason, but at this point, those charges are just those being investigated.
“He will be charged, or if we find he has not committed any crime, he will be released,” a spokesman for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told BBC Africa, saying Biar’s arrest by the country’s National Security Services (NSS) was related to a “national security” concern.
But supporters say Biar is a peaceful man who has been wrongly arrested for raising legitimate criticisms of his homeland’s current leaders.
“It’s been two months, and already it feels like he’s been in for a year,” said Aaron Spence, another friend of Biar’s who is organizing the rally. “Imagine how his family feels, how his 5-year-old son feels wondering what’s up with daddy.”
The work of Peter Biar in South Sudan
Biar, who resides in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife and children, due to the instability in South Sudan, is an activist, academic, economic analyst and businessman. He previously founded the South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment, a sport intended to foster national unity amongst rival tribes.
Decades ago, he first came to the U.S. as one of the 20,000 Sudanese refugees known as “Lost Boys,” young people displaced or orphaned by the nation’s bloody, decades-long civil war. In 2001, about 4,000 of them came to the U.S. for schooling and safe refuge. Settling in the Philadelphia area, Biar excelled at Central High School and La Salle University, then went on to get a master’s at Harvard and is now a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University in the UK. He is also a fellow at the International Growth Centre, former World Bank Employee, founder and director of the South Sudan-based Center for Strategic Analysis and Research think tank, and is a chairman for the South Sudan Youth Leaders Forum’s (SSYLF).
He has been publicly critical of the peace efforts in South Sudan, which was formed as a new nation in 2011 but soon after descended into a new civil war, and has advocated a so-called “generational exit,” to induct young people into politics.
Current president Kiir signed a peace treaty with rebel leader Riek Machar ending the conflict within days of the arrest of Biar, who had criticized both men and their treaty.
“The economy of South Sudan is in tatters… Basic products are extremely difficult to get,” Biar said during an interview shortly before his arrest. He noted the treaty would put three vice presidents, 42 cabinet ministers, 440 ministers of parliament and an estimated 1,000 generals on the public payroll while the people suffer: “Most of our budget, the entire resources of the country, will be going to maintain these political leaders and the generals.”
Criticisms like these may have landed Biar in the custody of the NSS at Juba’s “Blue House” jail. While he has not been charged, he is now out of solitary confinement, and has been allowed to see his wife and legal team. Biar is reportedly doing well at present. But international figures and groups have raised concerns about the treatment of Biar and other South Sudanese political prisoners – some of whom, according to Amnesty International, have been tortured or killed.
Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN, called Biar’s arrest “disturbing news,” writing on Twitter, “South Sudanese government showing desperate desire to silence civil society leaders and suppress criticism of their destructive policies.”
But Biar’s friends won’t let the world forget about his situation.
“Knowing Peter and the experience he had as one of the Sudanese Lost Boys here in the states, the encouragement they received from elders back home in governmentt including men like Salva Kir was ‘learn, come back, and bring back the best ideas to make a great new country.’ He’s doing just that,” Spence said.
None of Biar’s supporters think he is a threat to the security of South Sudan – they say he wants to participate peacefully in building the country’s future.
“Peter is very passionate about peace in South Sudan,” Wilson said. “We want to show the South Sudanese government that we’re serious about the release of Peter and other political detainees. Their story is worth telling.”