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Prison Standoff in South Sudan’s Blue House

This undated photo shows prisoners sitting together at the central prison in the capital Juba, South Sudan. A new Amnesty International report accuses authorities in South Sudan of torturing people to death in detention and letting many others languish.

Prisoners in South Sudan’s notorious Blue House say about 200 of them broke into a store in the prison where weapons are kept early Sunday morning local time and are holding two “unharmed” prison guards hostage, demanding the government provide prisoners with due process.

The prisoners say they “do not want to fight, we just want our voice to be heard” and add they have no intention of firing back at South Sudanese military and national security personnel who have surrounded the prison.

No fatalities have been reported, although one prisoner was shot below his left knee during a scuffle that broke out when the prisoners took control of the prison.

Safety 'very relative'

“Safety now is very relative, we are now in a situation where we don’t know what may happen,” said Peter Biar Ajak, an academic who was arrested at the Juba International Airport in late July.

Biar is unarmed and said he is hiding in a bunker along with other unarmed civilians in the prison known as the Blue House for its blue-tinted windows.

“What we are hoping for is that the government of South Sudan is able to resolve this and is able to negotiate to those who have taken this decision to resort to this kind of armed protest,” Biar said.

Prisoners say there has been no communication between them and South Sudanese officials.

There are about 100 armed prisoners in the rooftop, 50 on the grounds and another 50 inside the Blue House, according to Kerbino Wol who spoke to VOA South Sudan in Focus on the phone.

Languishing in prison

The prisoners say they are fed up as most of them have been behind bars for months, some for years without being charged or given access to a lawyer.

Abraham Majak Maliap who spoke to VOA over the phone says he has been in prison since November 2017. Majak says they are asking the president to keep his promise and release political prisoners.

“If the president pardoned us, we have to be released,” Majak said. “So our goal is that, we don’t want to create any problems.

“The president has been decreeing a lot of decrees,” Majak said, “and we have not yet been released and our names have been replayed and replayed but all those things are fake, they are not true.”

South Sudan’s government spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

'Systematic injustice'

Prisoners say the standoff was not premeditated but was in response to months of aggravated threats by prison personnel.

They say armed military and security personnel were shooting at the prison but they refused to shoot back.

No shooting was taking place when the phone interviews were being conducted.

Prisoners say only half of the 400 inmates in the Blue House have taken up arms in the stand-off while the other half are hiding in bunkers.

Wol, one of the armed prisoners, was arrested April 27, accused of plotting a coup and an assassination. He says there is no evidence to substantiate the accusation, he has not been given access to a lawyer, and has not seen his loved ones for months.

“This systematic injustice is not acceptable,” Wol said. He says he is speaking up on behalf of the voiceless. “We are asking for justice,” he said. “We asked to be governed by the rule of law, not by force.”

“We have been cut out all over from the world outside,” Majak said. “We are just here. Even going outside to see sunlight is so hard. So our voice needs to be heard and if anybody commits a crime they have to be taken to a court, otherwise they should not be kept because the crime is a crime and justice has to be done.”