The US imposed sanctions on South Sudanese First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, the US Treasury Department said in a statement, in Washington’s latest move to pressure the country’s politicians to form a unity government.
The Treasury Department said Gai arranged and directed the alleged killings of opposition politician Aggrey Idri Ezibon and human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak to solidify his position in government and intimidate the opposition.
South Sudan presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny, told Reuters after sanctions were announced Washington’s move will worsen the situation in the country.
Gai “is helpful in the implementation of peace and he should be encouraged,” the spokesman said, adding there was no evidence government officials were involved in killings cited by Treasury.
Gai, former governor of an oil-rich region in South Sudan, has long been a powerful government figure with close ties to President Salva Kiir.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement calling on government and opposition leaders to create distance from those who spoil the peace process. He said Gai, on behalf of Kiir, acted to “divide and sow distrust, extend conflict in South Sudan and impede the reconciliation and peace process.”
Gai could not immediately be reached for comment.
He is the latest South Sudanese official to be sanctioned by Washington. Last month, the US blacklisted two South Sudanese cabinet ministers, days after slapping sanctions on five lower level officials responsible for the likely murder of two human rights activists in 2017.
The sanctions implemented under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption, freeze Gai’s US assets and generally prohibit Americans from doing business with him.
“Gai’s attempt to silence the opposition party is derailing the country’s ability to implement a peace agreement,” said Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich in the statement.
Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal in 2018 to form a unity government by November. Days before the deadline, the leaders gave themselves an extension of 100 days to implement the agreement, a move criticised by Washington.
In November, the United States recalled its ambassador from South Sudan and said it was re-evaluating its relationship with the African country’s government.