U.S. Senators Call for Release of Harvard Activist Detained in South Sudan After Criticizing Government

U.S. senators are calling for the release of a Harvard graduate and prominent political activist who has been detained in South Sudan for nearly a week after criticizing the country's government on Twitter and urging citizens to mobilize to "bring about peace."

Peter Biar Ajak, a 34-year-old married father of two young children, was arrested by South Sudan's National Security Service (NSS) in Juba, South Sudan's capital, while boarding a plane to the city of Aweil.

Friends and family of Ajak said he had yet to receive any formal charges and had been denied access to a lawyer, with the activist's brother, Deng Ajak-Agutdau, telling Newsweek, "They are not telling us, or him, why they are holding him."

imgs_1532865293_37671 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

Ajak, who was born in South Sudan, came to the United States in 2001 as one of the thousands of "Lost Boys" offered refuge in North America through resettlement programs.

He lived in Philadelphia, where he attended La Salle University before graduating from Harvard Kennedy School in 2009 with a masters in public administration in international development, then going on to work for World Bank as an economist based in South Sudan. Before his arrest, Ajak had been nearing the completion of a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. 

The political activist's friends and family believe he was arrested over his tweets that criticized South Sudan's government, which he had posted before attempting to fly to Aweil. 

In one tweet, Ajak wrote, "We must stop thinking that the so-called leaders will bring peace [to] 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.

In the days since Ajak's arrest, a number of senators, including Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), have joined calls from a number of rights organizations, including Amnesty International, and colleges including Cambridge and the University of Oxford, in demanding Ajak's release. 

In a joint statement shared on Booker's website, Booker and Coons, who are both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said they were "deeply concerned" about reports of Ajak's detention.

“We are deeply concerned about the reported detention of South Sudanese peace activist Peter Biar Ajak by South Sudan’s National Security Service after his criticism of the direction of the South Sudanese peace process," Booker and Coons wrote. 

"We are also troubled by reports that President Salva Kiir personally ordered a crackdown on government critics," they continued, addressing long-standing claims that activists and critics of South Sudan's leadership were routinely being detained by the government. 

GettyImages-462467654 South Sudan's president Salva Kiir attends the Intergovernmental Authority on Development 29th Extraordinary Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 29, 2015. Kiir is facing calls to free Harvard graduate and activist Peter Biar Ajak, who was detained by South Sudan's National Security Service on July 28, 2018. ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty

The two senators called on the South Sudanese government to "release Peter Ajak and other political prisoners immediately and respect the rule of law and fundamental freedoms that are necessary pillars of peace in South Sudan." 

Noting that Ajak's arrest came as South Sudan's president signed a peace agreement with rebels in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, Booker and Coons wrote, "We expect the government to implement its commitment during the talks in Khartoum to release detainees immediately. 

"We urge South Sudan’s political leaders, including President Kiir and SPLM-IO leader Machar, to fully commit to truly inclusive negotiations, and to demonstrate the leadership necessary to bring genuine peace and accountable governance to South Sudan."

On Twitter, Menendez accused the South Sudanese government of showing a "pattern of using security services to harass, intimidate and detain critics."

Casey said he was "troubled" to learn that Ajak had been detained in South Sudan.

Thomas Hushek, U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, also asked for Ajak to be released, telling journalists on Thursday, "We are asking for his release and for more information about really what the case has been about," according to a report from the Sudan Tribune.

Prince Boucher, who attended La Salle University with Ajak as an undergraduate, told Newsweek that Ajak's family had limited opportunities to speak with the political activist. 

He said Ajak's wife, Nyathon Hoth, was last able to see her husband on August 1 for a brief period of time. Ajak told her he had not been "physically abused" by NSS staff and was doing "OK," but still had no answers as to why he was being detained, or when he might be released.

GettyImages-1001252518 U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in Washington, D.C., on July 18. Booker called on the South Sudan government to release political activist and economist Peter Biar Ajak. Mark Wilson/Getty

James Deng, who has known Ajak since both men traveled to the U.S. as part of the "Lost Boys" group who were displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War, told Newsweek he was glad to know his friend was in good health, but that it was frustrating not knowing "exactly what he's being held for." 

"It's literally against his constitutional rights," Deng said. "And it's not just Peter. There are so many other people that have been detained in South Sudan. The difference is that Peter has some international following, which is good, but there are so many people that are being detained there. Some of their family members may not even know where they are. It's crazy."

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

The rights organization 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."

Deng said Ajak has dedicated much of his life to promoting change in the country, despite the risks: "He's a leader; he's very ambitious. He wants to be part of a success story." Deng said people in South Sudan are afraid to rally behind Ajak "because of fear of being arrested," but there also are "many who support what he is doing. We are all watching and praying that Peter gets his freedom soon."

A petition launched on Change.org, calling on the United Nations, World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. House of Representatives to intervene in Ajak's detention, had acquired more than 4,526 signatures as of Friday morning. 

Neither of South Sudan's embassies in the U.S. or Britain have responded to repeated requests for comment.

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