Chol and Kuel: joined in fate but separated by ‘hammer of justice’

Chol and Kuel: joined in fate but separated by ‘hammer of justice’
Abraham Chol.

A special high court in Juba concluded high-profile cases on incitement and treason pitting the state against a former governor and a preacher after much drama and back and forth that marred the litigation process.

Abraham Chol and Kuel Aguer Kuel knew their fate in December 2022, but their long wait in the hearing process gave the courts a busy schedule and fodder for discussion for the public. The two were charged in separate cases with offences that sounded almost identical. Kuel, who was the former governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, faced charges of incitement and planning the regime’s ouster. He was acquitted. Chol, on the other hand, stumbled onto a two-year jail sentence after being found guilty of two charges: misusing religion and abusing the presidency.

Unlike Chol’s imprisonment, Kuel’s acquittal painted a different picture of the judiciary and inspired celebration, particularly among civil society, with many arguing that the courts were now acting independently.

Abraham Chol was arrested on July 8, 2021, after issuing a prediction that President Salva Kiir and the First Vice President Riek Machar would be replaced by 2021 Independence Day—a prophecy that never materialized.

In a video widely shared on social networks, Chol, who is also the leader of Cush International Church, said a younger leader would take over from President Kiir and urged the public to come out in large numbers on Independence Day to welcome the supposed new leader.

But things would quickly fall apart for the outspoken spiritual leader as he would be made to spend Independence Day in Juba’s Northern Division Police Station.

His followers would later claim they were constantly harassed by security forces deployed at the premises of Cush International Church.

The alleged “prophecy,” which never came true, and the unusual nighttime arrest of the alleged foreteller happened too quickly for many on social media and even at tea stalls, leaving tongues wagging.

But Abraham Chol’s induced hullabaloo was by far quieter than the uproar sparked by activist Kuel, a former governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, after co-founding a pressure group known as the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA) in August 2021.

The group, which drew its membership from academia, civil rights activists, and reformists, called for peaceful mass protests on August 30, 2021, to force the government to step down after accusing it of “failed leadership.”

The group wrote and circulated a number of declarations agitating for civil disobedience as a means to pressure President Salva Kiir’s administration to relinquish power, but Kuel, the ringleader, was arrested days later, sending several members of the coalition into hiding.

A Juba-based policy think tank, the Sudd Institute, was also shut down that year because some of the coalition members were linked to it.

UN Human Rights Watch condemned the arrest of Chol and Kuel, describing the charges pressed against them as “dubious.”

After constituting a tribunal in September, the government finally arraigned the duo, along with six other co-accused, in absentia, for trial on October 3, 2022, in a move welcomed—with concerns over political interference in the justice system—by many, including Human Rights Watch, a United Nations watchdog body that campaigns against abuse of human rights.

After a series of court appearances, Kuel finally regained his freedom on December 9, 2022, after a long detention marked by sickness and stress in Juba Central Prison. Even though Kuel was held behind bars all this time, the court dropped all charges against the critic, citing a lack of evidence.

Chol’s case would drag on for more days until he was handed 2 years and 9 months in jail for “insulting” the president under Section 202 of the Penal Code Act of 2008 and another 3 months or SSP 500,000 fine under Section 76 of the same act.

The court had earlier dropped eight out of the 10 charges it initially slapped on the outspoken pastor, who is also the head of Cush International Church, based in Juba’s suburb of Rock City.

While the prosecution lawyers have not indicated they will press more charges against the spiritual leader, his defence team said they will appeal the verdict in the court of appeals within the 15-day window given by the court.