JUBA, South Sudan -- South Sudan's government is paying a U.S.-based lobby firm $3.7 million to improve its relationship with the Trump administration and to block a path to justice for victims of the country's five-year civil war.
The two-year contract, seen by The Associated Press, was signed earlier this month by South Sudan's government and Gainful Solutions, a lobbying firm run by former U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger.
The contract says the company was hired to, among other things, attempt to "delay and ultimately block establishment of the hybrid court." The long-delayed court is a key part of South Sudan's fragile peace deal signed in September and is meant to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes in a conflict that killed nearly 400,000 people.
The contract was signed just weeks before the peace deal's next major deadline, with opposition leader Riek Machar expected to return to South Sudan by May 12 to again become President Salva Kiir's deputy in a unity government. That arrangement has been shaken more than once by outbursts of gunfire, and the opposition now seeks a six-month extension over security concerns.
Worried observers have said the peace deal, already marked by delays and fighting, could fall apart. The government has repeatedly said it does not have enough funds to implement the deal's $285 million initial phase.
South Sudan's opposition criticized the U.S. lobbying contract. "It only shows the desperation the government is in, trying to evade accountability and justice ... misplaced priorities," Henry Odwar, opposition deputy chairman, told the AP.
The contract raises questions about the commitment of South Sudan's government to provide justice for the "countless victims who have been executed, disappeared and raped by government and opposition forces," said Sarah Jackson, regional deputy director for Amnesty International.
South Sudan's deputy chief of mission in the United States, Gordon Buay, said there is no intention to abolish the hybrid court, but the priority needs to be on reconciliation rather than punitive justice.
"The West wants it right away ... but we can't do them concurrently," Buay told the AP. It will be a lot easier to hold leaders to account if the community is on board and that first requires reconciliation, he said.
The Gainful Solutions lobbying firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a possible indication of divisions within South Sudan's government, the country's information minister, Michael Makuei, said he had no knowledge of the lobbying contract and that the peace process is "moving in the right direction."
The hybrid court should have been established and operational within a year of an earlier peace deal in August 2015, but South Sudan's government stalled in signing the memorandum of understanding with the African Union and passing draft legislation that would establish the court.
Meanwhile, many South Sudanese wish for justice after a grueling civil war. A survey of more than 1,500 people conducted by South Sudan's Law Society and the United Nations Development Program in 2014 found that two-thirds of respondents said people responsible for abuses should "face trial."
The lobbying firm also will push the Trump administration to open a "military relationship" with South Sudan to enhance the fight against extremism and promote regional stability.
Reports of the contract sparked international and national outrage on social media.
The contract indicates that South Sudan's government "doesn't want the peace deal to be implemented" and the lobbyists are also to blame, said Klem Ryan, former coordinator of the U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions on South Sudan.
"Taking money to lobby against accountability and for impunity is disgraceful," he said.
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