On Mayday, six men were charged of murder in Southern Sudan. They were three Sudanese: Joseph Dut, Isaac Chol, and Matur Maher and three Kenyans: Bernard Alumasa Mheri, James Munyao Mbithi and George Forbes. The last man, Forbes, also has Australian nationality. The men work for a Kenyan construction company in the southern Sudan town of Rumbek. They were charged over the killing of Ukrainian Mykola Serebrenikov, who worked as a flight engineer for another firm.
The Ukrainian man was found hanged from a towel rack at the Kenyan construction company's property. Several locals had chased him to the site and he was allowed in. Two independent post-mortem reports (one done in Kenya) concluded that Serebrenikov’s death was suicide. But the judge believed otherwise and said it was murder. His judgement was based on the testimony of Awan Gol, the deputy state governor, who said he had seen the body of the Ukrainian and he was suspicious about the towel rack from which he was found hanging. "It was not a high place where he could hang himself, his knees were on the ground, and his hands on the ground," he said.
The judge remanded the six men to appear in court on 7 May in Rumbek. The city of Rumbek does not belong to Sudan itself but rather Southern Sudan, officially a “semi-autonomous southern region” but unofficially the second city of a new country. Then Kenya launched a protest about the detention of its citizens despite an autopsy report done in Nairobi showing it was suicide. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Major General Kuol Deim Kuol dismissed the Kenya autopsy and refuted their claims that SPLA soldiers are harassing Kenyan nationals working and doing business in Southern Sudan. He claimed that three Kenyans killed 15km inside Southern Sudan were in fact “Kenyans bandits”.
Meanwhile the Australian media jumped on the case of the third suspect George Forbes. Forbes was born in Kenya but migrated to Australia 20 years ago. He lived in Sydney and Brisbane before travelling to Sudan. On 26 April, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman who gave the facts of the case. “An Australian man has faced a Sudan court charged with murder and failing to prevent suicide.” Australia had no-one inside Southern Sudan and was relying on British contacts inside the country to see if they could make contact with Forbes.
The Fairfax press described Forbes as 45 and an employee of Trax International Construction. It mentioned five other arrests. Serebrenikov, the Ukrainian engineer, was found hanged in a bathroom at Trax's compound. If found guilty of murder, the six men could all be sentenced to death.
When the case came to trial on 7 May, the judge heard the evidence and said he would give his verdict on 18 May. There are three possible outcomes. They are: death by hanging, life imprisonment, or the payment of dia to the victim's family. Dia is bloody money that is institutionalised in the Sudanese law that Southern Sudan has inherited. One of Forbes’ relatives in Rumbek for the trial was directed by the judge to conduct talks with Serebrenikov's family about financial compensation. Under Sudanese customary law, dia is paid in the form of cattle, at the rate of 31 cows for one human life. The judge said they should find out what Serebrenikov’s family want. But that might not be easy to do. Rumbek is a long way from Kiev. The judge challenged the men to produce a member of the Ukrainian's man’s family in court which they were unable to do.
Meanwhile, the Australian ambassador to Egypt, Robert Bowker came to Rumbek to attend the trial. A former Associate Professor in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, the Middle East and Central Asia at the Australian National University, Bowker is probably aware that the trial may not be foremost in Rumbek’s priorities.
The town was initially chosen to be the new country’s capital but was overtaken by Juba. With a population of less than 100,000, Rumbek's facilities remain poor. The city was destroyed by two decades of civil war with Khartoum’s central Government that left 1.5 million dead. Here, people live in traditional thatched huts and hardly anyone has electricity or running water. But there is a sense of optimism as the city tries to pick up the pieces of peacetime.
The trial of the six men rumbles on.