When a friend becomes a political prisoner

A friend of mine from graduate school, Peter Biar (whom I know as Peter Ajak), was detained several months ago in his native South Sudan. A few weeks ago he was finally charged with “sabotage, insurgency and possession of weapons for allegedly staging an uprising”. The charges carry the potential penalty of death, if convicted.

I do not want to venture into the details of Peter’s case, other than to express how farcical the charges are. Based on what I have gathered in the news, Peter’s true offense was to criticize the national government via Twitter, and call for a new generation of South Sudanese to lead that country’s ongoing peace process. Otherwise I do not understand the rationale for his imprisonment.

Perhaps if you’re from a country that lacks a strong rule of law and independent courts, this sort of thing isn’t so shocking. In much of the world criminal charges are fully disconnected from truth; they exist only as levers of political power and influence, with no consideration for actual matters of innocence or guilt. Even I, born and raised in the US, am not so naive. After all, I’m used to reading the constant reports of Bahá’is in Iran being summarily harassed, detained, and imprisoned under phony pretenses such as “spying for Israel” or “spreading of corruption”.

As I have learned, however, when it’s your friend this sort of thing takes on new significance. I must admit, the prevailing feeling is one of powerlessness. Peter has a legal defense fund, and the governments of the US and UK, as well as various international organizations such as Amnesty International, are lobbying for his release. I do not pretend to know much about his case, but I suspect that a lack of funding or awareness is not the reason he is still being denied his freedom. Larger political dynamics are at play.

If that’s the case, what can we do? The worst thing, I would say, is to let the feeling of alarm and concern simply pass. We should not waste those feelings. There are many prisoners of conscience in the world, and our time, money, and effort may make a difference to somebody, even if that somebody isn’t the one we care about most. Meanwhile, no matter where we live, we can do something in our local communities — or even our own families — that can make an impact. The point is to express one’s sense of goodwill, justice, and concern for the wellbeing for others, whoever they are. Perhaps, then, that feeling of powerless can — at least in some small measure — be dissolved.

I’d encourage any and all who are reading this to familiarize themselves with Peter’s case and get involved. And if you don’t think you’re likely to make a difference here, make sure to go out and find another place where you can.

Free Peter Biar

Amnesty international — get involved

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