‘I told the judge I was 15’: Children and South Sudan’s Death Penalty


Over 300 prisoners are currently on death row in South Sudan, a figure that has risen since the country gained independence in 2011. In an alarming new report by Amnesty International, the use of the death penalty within the judicial system of South Sudan has escalated in 2018 compared to previous years.

This is despite the practice of capital punishment being outlawed for all crimes in 106 countries across the world, and despite the tradition being widely condemned by human rights organisations.

The report by Amnesty International, titled ‘I told the judge I was 15’, was written with the assistance of legal professionals and those working within the judicial system of the South Sudanese government. The organisation has condemned the use of capital punishment in all circumstances, as it deprives the accused of the most basic human right – the right to life. In response to the findings, Amnesty’s East Africa Director, Joan Nyanyuki has said:

It is extremely disturbing that the world’s youngest nation has embraced this outdated, inhuman practice and is executing people, even children, at a time when the rest of the world is abandoning this abhorrent punishment. The President of South Sudan must stop signing execution orders and end this obvious violation of the right to life.

Since the country gained independence, Amnesty has continued to monitor the use of the death penalty in South Sudan; stating that in the 7 years since 2011, the government has sentenced at least 140 people to death, with around 32 of these being executed. The number of those sentenced to death and subsequently executed has continued to rise annually, with the exception of 2014, a year in which Amnesty reported no executions by the government. This does not mean that no executions took place, rather that they were not reported.

Credit: Martha Heinemann Bixby [CC BY-NC 2.0]. via Flickr
As of 31st  October 2018, 7 people have been executed under the death penalty in South Sudan this year, including a child under the age of 18. As of 22nd November of the same year, at least 342 people are said to be on death row. It is very important to note that all of the figures in this new report are minimum figures, as the South Sudanese government are not transparent on their use of the death penalty against its citizens, and so the true figures are difficult to obtain. However, Amnesty International have stated that the true figures are likely to be much higher than those reported by the organisation.

The use of capital punishment against children, as well as having children on death row presently, has caused an outcry amongst human rights charities, as this violates both South Sudan’s own laws and international human rights laws. Those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime cannot be sentenced to death, and most definitely cannot be executed. Amnesty have called for the immediate abolishment of the use of the death penalty on children, with the aim to end capital punishment altogether in South Sudan. The title of the report was derived from a statement of a 16-year-old boy. The boy, given the pseudonym Philip Deng and currently on death row in South Sudan, was only 15 when convicted of murder, a crime he claims was an accident:

Before the accident, I was in secondary school. I was a runner, a very good one and I was also a singer of gospel and earthly songs. […] My own aim was to study and do things that can help others. My hope is to be out and to continue with my school.

Credit: Pixabay (Public Domain)

Concern for those on death row has grown in response to a letter issued by the Director-General of the National Prison Service of South Sudan earlier in the year. The letter ordered the transfer of all prisoners on death row from state and county prisons to Wau Central Prison and Juba Central Prison, with no official reasoning or explanation. These two prisons are notorious for being those in which executions are carried out. Amnesty International urges the South Sudanese government to stop all future plans for the execution of prisoners, and emphasises the importance of protecting those under the age of 18 from the sentence of death. They have called directly upon the President of South Sudan to begin to take action against this ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment’, so that the world’s most recently recognised sovereign state can abolish this ‘outdated’ punishment once and for all.

International Editor’s Note: This article came about in collaboration with SUSU Amnesty, the University of Southampton’s Amnesty International student society, through their Social Secretary Elin Dawes. For more information on SUSU Amnesty, follow their Facebook Group and Instagram (@susuamnesty).


MA Jewish History and Culture Student, with an emphasis on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews globally throughout history.

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