Harvard Political Activist Arrested in South Sudan After Tweets Criticizing Government

Harvard graduate and political activist Peter Biar Ajak was arrested by the South Sudan National Security Service despite no charges having been made against him, his friends and family say. Family photo

A Harvard graduate working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge has been arrested in South Sudan after criticizing the country's government on Twitter.

Peter Biar Ajak, who graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School with a master of public administration in international development degree in 2009, called on South Sudan's citizens to mobilize to "bring about peace" to the war-afflicted country.

He was arrested on Saturday, July 28 in Juba, South Sudan's capital, while trying to board a plane to the city of Aweil in northwestern South Sudan, the activist's brother, Deng Ajak-Agutdau told Newsweek.

"We are deeply concerned," Ajak-Agutdau said of his brother, a prominent political activist. "The regime and arresting authorities are known for restlessness and being unprofessional in dealing and handling those perceived to be government critics or to have [dissenting] opinions."

"And above all," he added, "they are not telling us or him why they are holding him."

Ajak, 34, had been on his way to attend an event organized by the Red Army Foundation, an organization created by former child soldiers seeking to address social issues in South Sudan, family friend Prince Boucher told Newsweek.

Ajak had first came to the U.S. in 2001 as one of the thousands of "Lost Boys" offered refuge in North America through resettlement programs.

Boucher, who attended La Salle University in Philadelphia with Ajak as an undergraduate, said the political activist had been planning to meet with a "powerful leader from the Red Army Foundation" before he was arrested by the South Sudan National Security Service.

Ajak is believed to still be in the security service's custody, though no charges have been laid against him, according to Boucher.

Both Boucher and Ajak-Agutdau said they believe Ajak was arrested over tweets criticizing South Sudan's government, which he had posted before attempting to take his flight to Aweil.

In one tweet, Ajak had written: "We must stop thinking that the so-called leaders will bring peace South Sudan. We, the great people of South Sudan, must organize ourselves to bring about the peace we deserve," according to a press release published online by his family.

Now, Ajak's friends and family are worried for the political activist's safety over fears that the South Sudanese government will seek retribution for his tweets and activism.

Ajak-Agutdau said that only a few close family members have been able to see his brother since he was arrested on Saturday.

He said Ajak told family members Monday that he has not been "tortured" during his detention.

Boucher said that while Ajak had thrived in the U.S. education system, receiving his master's degree from Harvard and working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, he had always been determined to use his experience, skills and growing influence to change the political landscape in South Sudan.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in South Sudan in ethnic violence or as a result of "perceived political alliances" in South Sudan's ongoing conflict, while more than 3 million others have been forced to flee their homes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The rights organization has also noted that South Sudan's government has "become increasingly intolerant and repressive, arbitrarily arresting politicians, members of civil society and journalists for extended periods, sometimes years."

"Lack of accountability for decades of violence during Sudan's long civil war continues to fuel the conflict," HRW says on its website, adding that "despite a fragile peace agreement in 2015, leaders on all sides have failed to reduce abuses by their forces and [to] hold them to account."

Ajak-Agutdau said his brother "is considered a threat by government operatives and security establishment for pointing out the wrong things that are happening in the country.…

"Things like corruption within the government, arbitrary arrest, intimidation, freedom of expression, lack of will to bring genuine peace and many more," he added.

Boucher agreed, calling Ajak a "hero" with the "courage and bravery to go back to a war zone country to fight for his people."

"Peter could have been a millionaire living a luxurious life in America, but he sacrificed the American Dream to go empower his country with the tools he gained during his refuge in America," Boucher said, adding: "It's an injustice that he's been arrested and it's scary because he's a threat to a corrupt regime that seeks to oppress its citizens."

University of Cambridge spokesperson Tamsin Starr told Newsweek in an emailed statement that the university is "deeply concerned" to hear reports of Ajak's detention.

"We are in contact with his family, who are understandably worried and distressed by these events," Starr said, adding: "We join their call for Peter to be released safe and well and will continue to support the family in any way we can."

A number of groups have also called for Ajak's release, using the hashtag #FreePeterBiar on Twitter.

Jonathan Leape, the executive director of the International Growth Center, where Ajak has worked as a senior adviser, wrote in a statement shared online: "We are deeply concerned to hear of the arrest on unspecified charges of Peter Biar Ajak."

Describing Ajak as a "well-respected South Sudanese economist who has relentlessly supported the cause of peace and reconciliation in South Sudan," Leape called on the government to either file formal charges against Peter Biar or promptly release him."

The United People's Democratic Movement of South Sudan, a grassroots movement that describes itself as having been organized "in response to the failed leadership, deteriorating security and economic crisis in South Sudan" wrote in a Twitter statement: "UPDM joins peace lovers in the country, calling for the release of Dr. Peter Biar Ajak immediately."

Amnesty International's Kenya office has also called for Ajak's release, calling on supporters to speak out against his detention.

Neither of South Sudan's embassies in the U.S. or Britain, nor Harvard University, have responded to requests for comment from Newsweek at the time of publication.

Updated: This story has been updated with more information, as well as a statement from the University of Cambridge.
Correction: An initial version of this article stated that Peter Biar Ajak was arrested on June 28, 2018. He was arrested on July 28, 2018.