April 29, 2019 / 7:33 PM / 21 days ago

South Sudan hires U.S. lobbyists to help block war crimes court - contract

NAIROBI (Reuters) - South Sudan has hired U.S. lobbyists to help it reverse U.S. sanctions and stop the establishment of a court meant to prosecute war crimes, a document showed - a move rights groups said could undermine victims seeking justice.

FILE PHOTO: South Sudanese President Salva Kiir addresses crowds at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jok Solomun/File Photo

Under the contract, signed on April 2 and published on the U.S. Justice Department website, South Sudan’s government agreed to pay California-based Gainful Solutions $3.7 million (2.86 million pounds) over two years.

The government and Gainful Solutions did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment.

Gainful agreed, among other issues listed on the contract, to “open a channel of communication between (South Sudan’s) President Kiir and President Trump” and “persuade the Trump administration to reverse current sanctions and further block potential sanctions”.

In another bullet point in the contract, Gainful agreed to provide consultant services to “delay and ultimately block establishment of the hybrid court”.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 and collapsed into ethnically-charged civil war two years later, in fighting fuelled by rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar.

Under a peace deal with rebels in September last year, South Sudan’s government promised to set up a so-called hybrid court - staffed jointly by judges from its own benches and from other African countries.

The court is meant to try people accused of war crimes during the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and plunged parts of the country into famine.

U.N. agencies have accused troops loyal to both Kiir and Machar of atrocities during the conflict - accusations that both sides have regularly denied.

“UNACCEPTABLE”

“The hybrid court would try those most responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious crimes,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

“Its establishment is essential for South Sudan to see sustainable peace. It is disgraceful and unacceptable that the government is willing to pay millions to avoid justice.”

U.S.-based campaign group Human Rights Watch accused South Sudan of “blatant obstruction.”

“It represents a slap in the face to victims of the horrific crimes that have been committed in South Sudan,” said Elise Keppler, the organisation’s associate director.

During the fighting Washington imposed sanctions on South Sudanese military and political figures, and in January imposed an arms embargo to halt the flow of weapons into the country, all in a bid to push both sides to the negotiating table.

After a string of failed ceasefires, both sides finally agreed a deal in September under which the factions are meant to form a unity government by May 12 - though Machar told Reuters this month the deadline would be missed because pre-conditions had not been met.

The contract between South Sudan’s government and Gainful Solutions was published in the Foreign Agents Registration Act section of the Justice Department website.

The act requires lobbyists acting on behalf of foreign agents in the United States to register the relationship.

Additional reporting Denis Dumo; writing by Hereward Holland; Edting by Katharine Houreld and Andrew Heavens

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