Dr Peter Biar Ajak was arrested in South Sudan in July 2018 while working towards his PhD at Trinity CollegeYouTube/international growth centre

Dr Peter Biar Ajak became the first South Sudanese national to be awarded a PhD from the University of Cambridge last Saturday (24/10).

Ajak, the first person from South Sudan to study at Cambridge, received his PhD at the official ceremony last week, nine months after his release from South Sudan’s “Blue House” prison.

In regard to his PhD award, Ajak tweeted that he felt “truly honoured to be the first national of South Sudan to be awarded a PhD by Cambridge University. Despite spending nearly 2 years in unjustified detention, God gave me the strength to finish it.”

He further tweeted that he is dedicating “this [his PhD] to South Sudan and the resilience of our people.”

Trinity College, where Ajak completed his PhD, last Friday (23/10) tweeted a “Congratulations to Dr Peter Ajak, the first South Sudanaese national to receive a Cambridge University PhD”.

Ajak was detained by the South Sudanese government on July 28th 2018 at Juba airport by South Sudanese National Security Services (NSS) officers, with no clear reason offered for his arrest. Ajak was only released in January 2020 after a pardon from the country’s President Salva Kiir.

Ajak at the time of his arrest was a member of the Department of Politics and International Studies as well as a Cambridge Trust scholar.

He was detained without charge for eight months in the NSS detention facility Blue House, South Sudan’s main national security prison. His lawyer at the time, Jared Genser, said the detention was “in clear violation of his rights under international law.”

Only a year after his initial detention was Ajark, alongside six others, charged with sabotage, insurgency and possession of weapons - all 7 detainees pleaded guilty.

However, these charges, brought forward by the NSS, were related to an alleged prison uprising by other detainees in October 2018 in Blue House rather than a charge related to anything prior to his arrest.

Ajak had been an outspoken critic of the South Sudanese government’s response to the country’s ongoing civil war. He was a chairperson of the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum, and was arrested while on the way to an event held by the Red Army Foundation, an organisation created by former child soldiers to advocate for peace and address social issues in the country.


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Shortly before his arrest Ajak had tweeted that: “We must stop thinking that the so-called leaders will bring peace #SouthSudan. We, the great people of #southsudan, must organize ourselves to bring about the peace we deserve!”

Throughout his detention in South Sudan, the Cambridge community advocated for his release, including members of Cambridge’s Amnesty International Society staging their ‘cage campaign’ to protest against Ajak’s arbitrary arrest as well as Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope sending a letter to the South Sudan president, calling Ajak’s detention “unconstitutional”.

Ajak is now living with his family in Washington DC where he is a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.