Human rights lawyer takes on case of South Sudanese peace activist

Tim Jimenez
February 01, 2019 - 9:47 am
Peter Biar Ajak has been in a South Sudanese prison since July 28, 2018

Aaron Spence/Free Peter Biar

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Peter Biar Ajak, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who resettled in Philadelphia in 2001 and graduated from Central High School and La Salle University, has been in a South Sudanese prison for six months with no end in sight. 

He now has a new attorney who is trying to get him out: Jared Genser, a D.C.-based international human rights lawyer and managing director of Perseus Strategies. Genser is now working pro bono on Ajak's behalf. 

"When I'm involved in a case, I'm there 'til the very end," Genser said. He has has represented several political prisoners. His clients include Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel. 

Ajak, 35, was arrested at Juba International Airport in South Sudan on July 28, 2018. His friends, family, and now Genser, say he was arrested for his criticism of the South Sudanese government on TV, as a political commentator, and on social media. South Sudan has been embroiled in a years-long civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced, according to a report sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In September 2018, President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with the rebel leader, who was the nation's former vice president, but previous agreements have fallen through. 

After his arrest, Ajak was taken to the notorious "Blue House" prison where he has been ever since, even though Genser says he has never been formally charged with a crime. 

"He hasn't even been brought before a judge," Genser said. "He's also been held in really tough conditions with extended periods of solitary confinement and incommunicado and with only sporadic access to his family and counsel."

Genser said Ajak could be released at any time, but there could also be a dramatic shift the other way. 

"Shockingly, they have said he is being investigated for charges that include treason and terrorism. And, if he were in fact charged and convicted of those offenses, he could even be sentenced to death." 

Genser filed an urgent action appeal to the United Nations and he is now looking to drum up political support for Ajak's release. Several public officials, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Coons of Delaware, have called for his freedom.

RELATED: Booker, Coons call for release of peace activist from Sudanese prison

In the meantime, those closest to Ajak are still waiting and worrying. There was a prisoner revolt in October, and his friends and family say he tried to keep the peace and has since been punished because of his efforts to act as an intermediary.

"That's Peter in his element, and I'm just happy to hear that he still has that energy and wherewithal to do so," said Ryan Meisser, one of Ajak's classmates and friends from his time at La Salle. "But I fear that this experience ... (The South Sudanese government) is trying to break his psyche."

"He's in good hands," Meisser added, referring to Genser coming on board to represent Ajak. "But I don't know if it will make any impact on the authoritarian leader in South Sudan. I don't think he really listens to the international, outside pressure."

"(The South Sudanese government) is using pressure campaigns to scare and intimidate people," said Luke Bollerman, another one of Ajak's close friends from college. "They're threatening people, both implied and direct threats to people who speak out and people on the ground." 

Even with that intimidation, Bollerman says they cannot be silent. 

"It's also important to communicate  what can we do? What can we do to make sure that Peter isn't killed or detained indefnitely, leaving his children, both of his sons, without a father?"

RELATED: Peace activist arrested in South Sudan still without representation or trial