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Days after the Supreme Court of South Sudan acquitted Fr. John Mathiang on multiple counts, the South Sudanese Catholic Priest has said he is set to resume his Priestly ministry.

Speaking to journalists in Juba on Friday, March 22, the member of the Clergy of South Sudan’s Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, who had been convicted and sentenced for masterminding the 26 April 2021 shooting of the then Bishop-elect for the South Sudanese Diocese emphasized his innocence and compared his conviction and sentencing to the events of Good Friday.

“For sure I’m already going back to the Diocese of Rumbek; I’ve been here (Juba) and I’m going back to continue with my service,” Fr. Mathiang said.

The South Sudanese Catholic Priest said he recognized Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek Diocese as his Local Ordinary, emphasizing that he had supported his 8 March 2021 Episcopal appointment, the time it was made public.

My Bishop Carlassare, Fr. Mathiang said on March 22, “You know how much I received you in Rumbek and how I handled your announcement as Bishop; you are my Bishop. I have nothing against you, and I’m not opposing in any way your appointment.”

Fr. Mathiang was weighing in on the final order of South Sudan’s Supreme Court in which the panel of judges, chaired by the country’s Deputy Chief Justice, stated, “All convictions under Sections 48, 208, 334, 335, or any other Section of the South Sudan Penal Code Act, 2008, against John Mathiang Machol, are quashed.”

“All sentences against John Mathiang Machol under the above Sections are quashed, and therefore we declare him acquitted and criminally innocent”, Justice Dr. John Gatwech Lul-led panel of judges further stated in their final order seen by ACI Africa. In their order dated March 15, the panel of the South Sudanese Supreme Court judges added, “John Mathiang Machol is to be set free with immediate effect from this date.”

In a March 19 note to the Director of National Prison Service in Juba, the Deputy Chief Justice ordered that “inmate John Mathiang Machol” be “set free … immediately from prison as a decision of the Supreme Court”. In his address to journalists in Juba on March 22, Fr. Mathiang thanked the judges, who had acquitted him, saying, “I’m here happy, expressing my heartfelt appreciation to the Supreme Court of South Sudan and the panel who worked tirelessly to find out the truth and to set me free; I’m grateful.”

He also thanked his defense team for “journeying with me on this road up to this last moment. I say thank you. May the Good Lord reward you and keep you healthy to do good things like the way you have handled my case.”

“To the people that have been with me all along in the prison, especially the Director of Juba National Prison and his staff, I am grateful for their care and protection for the period that I stayed there,” Fr. Mathiang went on to say, adding, “I thank all those who have been helping me, who gave me support, material goods, the food, who visited me and gave me medicine during my detention.”

“To my family members, especially my brother, Daniel Mabor, who has shown the true face of a brother to journey with me up to this moment … I’m grateful for everything that people have done to me during this period,” he said.

Fr. Mathiang and a dozen others, including Catholic Priests, were arrested in connection with the attack on the Mons. Christian Carlassare, then Bishop-elect for Rumbek Diocese. The Italian-born member of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (MCCJ), who had been serving in South Sudan’s Malakal Diocese since he arrived in the country in 2005 was shot in both legs in the early hours of 26 April 2021, days after arriving in Rumbek Diocese.

He was consecrated on 25 March 2022, after waiting for more than 12 months since he was appointed Bishop. On 25 April 2022, a Juba-based High Court convicted Fr. Mathiang alongside Moris Sebit Ater, Laat Makur Agok, and Samuel Makir for “participating directly or indirectly” in the attempted assassination of Bishop Carlassare. In the case that was first mentioned on 26 January 2022, Justice Alexander Sebur Subek handed the three a seven-year jail term “without bail under Penal Code 334, 4,335, 2008.”

Mr. Ater and Mr. Makur were sentenced, Justice Sebur Subek said, based on the evidence before the court that the duo “went with ammunition to shoot the bishop in his house” in Rumbek. A third suspect, Samuel Makir, was handed a five-year jail term having been found guilty of “keeping two guns that were used for the attempted assassination and providing the assassins with Itel phone for communication,” the South Sudanese judge said.

Phone calls of Fr. Mathiang “before the crime were retrieved during a police investigation” following the shooting, a report by Eye Radio on April 25 reported. A witness testified to the High Court that three suspects in the case were closely related to Fr. Mathiang. On his part, Fr. Mathiang denied claims that he was part of the plot to shoot the bishop-elect for Rumbek Diocese when he testified in court on 21 February 2022. The defense team of Fr. Mathiang appealed the High Court ruling.

In a March 23 report, South Sudan’s Radio Tamazuj quotes the lead defense lawyer of Fr. Mathiang, Dr. Geri Raimondo Legge, recounting the events leading to their client’s acquittal. “He was sentenced here in Juba by the High Court then later on we appealed to the Court of Appeal of Greater Equatoria but unfortunately the Honorable Court of Appeal confirmed the conviction and sentence of 14 years,” Dr. Legge said about Fr. John Mathiang.

He went on to explain, “In South Sudan, any person has the right to appeal up to the Supreme Court which is the highest and the last resort for any aggrieved person. We appealed to the Supreme Court here in Juba and at last … our father, Fr. John Mathiang Machol was acquitted and he is now at home.”

The March 23 report also quotes Advocate Malith Jokthiang Wundit, a member of Fr. Mathiang’s defense team as saying that their client “was convicted on the allegation and confession of one of the accused persons and there were no independent witnesses, there was no credible evidence connecting him to the crime.”

“Fr. John was also a victim because he was in the same compound where the shooting took place,” Advocate Jokthiang has been quoted as saying, adding, “We argued that you cannot be expected to get out during a shootout, and yet he is not a policeman, but the court viewed that since he was there and he did not take any action he could be one of the accused persons and that is why he was convicted. However, lastly, he has been acquitted.”

In his address to journalists on March 22, Fr. Mathiang turned his attention to the judges of South Sudan’s High Court and Court of Appeal, who had handed him a seven-year and 14-year jail term respectively, saying, “For those who convicted me, I have nothing to say against them.” Comparing his conviction to the events of Good Friday, he explained, “I’m not the first person being convicted wrongly in the history of mankind, and especially in the church; it started with Jesus. Himself; He was accused falsely and he was convicted on the demand of what they call the public opinion.”

“Those who convicted me wrongly, it’s a human error; they can do anything that they want to do, but the good Lord will guide us and give the wisdom (He gave) the judges of the Supreme Court to make the right decision and to come out with the truth that they have given,” he continued. Fr. Mathiang added that he had “good news for” those he said “have been misunderstanding me and have stood on the mountain of revenge”.

“I’m innocent. Take the courage and let us join our hands together at the foot of the cross where Jesus took up all our sin upon himself and to reconcile us with God and with one another,” he said, and added, “I’m ready to receive everybody, and I have no grudges against any person.” Fr. Mathiang said he had “enjoyed” his prison experience, and that his fellow inmates regarded him as “their brothers.

“I did not look at my stay in prison as a punishment but considered it a call of God to witness another form of life; I had to strengthen the faith of my brothers who are facing similar situations or even worse than what I have been facing,” he said. Fr. Mathiang called upon inmates to exercise patience, and trust in the Lord. “God who created you will never abandon you,” he said.

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