YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A priest accused of shooting a bishop-elect in 2021 has been freed by the South Sudanese Supreme Court.

Father John Mathiang Machol of the Diocese Rumbek was serving a seven-year jail term for alleged involvement in the shooting of Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare, shortly after his appointment.

Defense attorney Malith Jokthiang said on Friday that the court saw no evidence of wrongdoing from his client.

Machol, the former diocesan coordinator of the Rumbek Diocese was sentenced by the Juba High Court in 2023 for aiding and abetting the shooting of the bishop-elect in 2021.

He was convicted along with three other men for “participating directly or indirectly” in the attempted assassination of Carlassare.

Carlassare, an Italian Comboni Missionary, was shot twice on his legs by gunmen in his Rumbek residence in April 2021.

The priest was convicted for inciting and plotting against the bishop-elect while Moris Sebit Ater and Laat Makur Agok were convicted because – in the words of Justice Sebur Subek –  the pair “went with ammunition to shoot the bishop in his house.”

The fourth person, 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.”

Carlassare later recovered from his attack, and was consecrated as a bishop in March 2022.

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Jokthiang had appealed the priest’s conviction, but the Juba High Court maintained the guilty verdict and the defense took the case to the Supreme Court where the verdict of the lower court was overruled.

“The Supreme Court ruled that Father John was innocent,” the lawyer told journalists at a press conference on Friday.

“There was no evidence to show that he was part and parcel of the crime that took place and so he was acquitted and relieved,” he said.

Reasons for the attempted murder

At a February 2022 hearing, a witness told the court that the shooting of the bishop-elect was part of a plot to “scare him away” from the diocese to which he had been appointed.

The witness said Mathiang was seeking control of the Diocese of Rumbek.

But when Machol testified on February 21, 2022, he denied the claims that he was part of the plot to shoot Carlassare.

The Rumbek Diocese in South Sudan was left without a bishop in July 2011 due to the untimely passing of Bishop Cesare Mazzolari. The bishop, originally from Italy, died shortly after collapsing while conducting Mass on the morning of July 16, 2011.

Following the bishop’s death, Father Fernando Colombo, who shared the same nationality Mazzolari, took over the administration of the diocese. He served as the Diocesan Administrator until December 27, 2013. On that date, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, appointed Mathiang as the Diocesan Coordinator.

Mathiang served as Diocesan Coordinator of the Rumbek Diocese from 2013 until March 2021, when Carlassare was appointed.

Commitment despite shooting

Recalling the shooting, Carlassare said the two gunmen “hit the muscles in my legs but missed any vital areas. This was a moment of grace, because it gave me the humility to be like the people, bearing the same wounds as the people.”

He said it was “as a sign” showing that south Sudanese “too can get back on their feet, despite the wounds caused by an endless conflict, despite the presence of so many weapons, so many territories occupied by militias and displaced people.”

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South Sudan – Africa’s newest nation that gained independence in 2011 – has remained engulfed in a severe humanitarian and human rights crisis. Clashes involving the government, opposition factions, and their allied militias, along with localized inter-communal conflicts, have led to widespread civilian casualties, injuries, and the displacement of numerous individuals across various regions.

“We have to provide hope that their wounds can be healed, that we can get back on our feet and walk along the path of peace,” Carlassare said at the time.

“There is much work to be done for the population to stop suffering because of the conflicts, instability, endemic poverty and lack of services … The attack I suffered was a clear sign of this,” he said.