SOUTH SUDAN: Convicted Priest and Mastermind of Attempted Murder of Bishop Carlassare of Rumbek Acquitted by Supreme Court

By Paschal Norbert  

JUBA, MARCH 26, 2024 (CISA) – Fr John Mathiang Machol, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan, who was sentenced to 14 years in jail for masterminding the failed murder of his bishop Rt Rev Christian Carlassare, MCCJ, has been acquitted by the Supreme Court sitting in Juba.

Fr Mathiang’s sentencing was nullified by the apex court on grounds of insufficient evidence to prove his involvement in the murder plot that occurred on April 26, 2021. He was among four other suspects found guilty of “participating directly or indirectly” in the attempted assassination of the then Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare of Rumbek.

According to Dr Geri Raimondo, the lead counsel in the appeal team of Mathiang, the disgraced priest had a right to appeal his conviction at the Supreme Court, which is the highest and final court for any aggrieved person in South Sudan after the Court of Appeal.

“Father John Mathiang was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment by the High Court, later on, we appealed to the Court of Appeal for Greater Equatoria, and unfortunately the honourable Court of Appeal for Greater Equatoria confirmed the conviction and the sentence of 14 years,” said the former Justice of South Sudan’s Court of Appeal.

“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, on March 18, 2024, our father, Fr. John Mathiang Machol was acquitted and he is now at home,” he added.

Pope Francis is pictured with Bishop Christian Carlassare (then bishop-elect) of Rumbek, South Sudan, during an audience at the Vatican on March 14, 2022. Bishop Carlassare had met with the pope after nearly a year of recovery from being shot in the legs. He was ordained a bishop on March 25,2022, in Rumbek.

Advocate Malith Jokthiang Wundit, a member of the priest’s defense team, explained the grounds for his release saying “Fr John 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. 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.”

On April 26, 2021, Bishop-elect of the Catholic Diocese Rumbek, Fr Christian Carlassare, now bishop of the same diocese, was attacked by armed men at his residence in Rumbek, Lakes State, and shot five times and wounded in both legs. He was later airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya, for specialized treatment and convalesce while awaiting new dates for his episcopal ordination.

The news of his attack was received with shock in both the local and universal Church as observers linked the ordeal to fights over the control of the diocese that had been dogged by insecurity since its erection in 1974. The accused Fr Mathiang, had been the Diocesan Coordinator of the diocese (sede vacante) for eight years.

In an interview with the local press after his acquittal, Fr Mathiang was grateful to his appeal team for spearheading his release and his family for both material and mental support. However, he maintained his innocence and reiterated he was wrongly convicted.

He also used the opportunity to acclaim his support of Bishop Carlassare and pleaded to be allowed back to the presbyterate of Rumbek.

“For those who have been misunderstanding me and have stood on the mountain of revenge, I have good news for you; I am innocent. Take courage and let us join hands at the foot of the cross where Jesus took up all our sins upon himself and reconciled us with God and one another. I am ready to receive everybody and I have no grudges against any person,” he said upon his release.

Bishop Carlassare being airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya, for specialized treatment.

“To my Bishop, the Bishop Carlassare, you know how much I received you in Rumbek and how I handled your announcement as my Bishop. I have nothing against you and I am not opposing your appointment,’ he reiterated.

“I am ready to go back to the Diocese of Rumbek so that I continue with my service. I can say I enjoyed my stay in the prison and the company of the inmates who saw me as their brother. I did not look at my stay in prison as a punishment but considered it a call of God to witness other forms of life. I had to strengthen the faith of my brothers who are facing similar situations or even worse than what I faced,” said Fr Mathiang, adding “For those who convicted me, I have nothing to say against them because I am not the first person to be wrongly imprisoned.  The history of mankind has many such incidents and Jesus himself was accused falsely and convicted on the demand of what they call public opinion.”

The release of Fr Mathiang, however, shrouded in mystery still leaves many questions unanswered. It remains also unclear if he will allowed back to Rumbek since there was no official communication of his suspension as a priest of Rumbek and there was neither a mention of a Vatican nor Diocesan inquiry into his involvement in the attempted assassination of his local ordinary.