By Jerome Starkey, Reuters

JUBA, South Sudan — On Christmas Eve last year, a 27-year-old hospital porter from Central Equatoria drank himself into oblivion and woke up the next day in a police cell, accused of a double murder. Martin Woro had no recollection of the previous night, and could not afford a lawyer.

Today he is one of 104 people on death row in South Sudan’s largest prison in Juba.

“I saw the judge four times,” he said. “Each time for around five minutes. On April 24 he sentenced me to death.”

The death sentence in South Sudan is carried out by hanging. The relatives of one of his victims demanded compensation, in the form of cash or cows, but the second man’s family called for Woro to face the gallows.

In many ways, his case embodies the struggle for the soul of Africa’s newest nation as South Sudan’s leaders decide whether to retain the death penalty, or seek another path as they draft a new constitution.

“The customary way of dealing with murder was blood compensation: You would pay in cows,” says Telar Deng, the presidential adviser on legal affairs. “We inherited the death penalty from the white people.”

Britain, which has pledged $200 million a year to South Sudan until 2015, has a long-standing opposition to capital punishment, although as the colonial power it helped to introduce it.

Canada, France, the European Union and the Comboni Catholic Missionaries have all called for South Sudan to impose a moratorium on executions, citing serious flaws in the justice system and ideological opposition.

“This is a struggle not only for the death penalty, but for justice more widely,” says Father Daniele Moschetti, the head of the Comboni mission. He said South Sudan’s Government, still heavy with ex-generals, was at risk of recreating the abuses of Khartoum they had fought against for more than three decades.

In a dozen interviews with death row inmates in Juba and Rumbek prisons, including two women convicted of murder, none said that they had access to lawyers.

Kenneth Kaunda, a former soldier sentenced to death for murder, says the first thing the judge told him was that he was guilty.

“I said, ‘Can you show me evidence?’ But he refused,” says Kaunda.

Stella Juwa Felix, a mother of six, was accused of shooting her husband and now lives in leg irons in Juba’s women’s prison which, in the absence of any psychiatric hospitals, also houses 11 severely mentally ill women. She had seven trips to court. Each lasted about 10 minutes. She’s never had a lawyer.

Yet the lack of legal aid is no reason to stop executions, according to Justice Geri Raymondo Legge, president of Lake State’s Appeal Court. During a previous appointment in Wao, he oversaw 17 executions in 14 months.

“In the absence of a lawyer I am the advocate of the accused,” he says. “I am advocate for the plaintiff, the defendant and judge. It is not a perfect system.”

Still, he adds, South Sudan needed the death penalty because its people were inclined to violence.

“If you remove the death penalty your life is in danger. Our people are aggressive. The purpose of this is a deterrent to stop them killing.”

Almost one-third of the men on Juba’s death row were former soldiers.

David Deng, the research director of the South Sudan Law Society, says the perception that people have been brutalized by war is widespread in the government.

“People think the population is too traumatized, that they are depraved killers and they need strict punishment. That trauma is represented not only by the killers, but also by the government’s willingness to kill its own people.”

Klaus Stieglitz, of the charity Sign of Hope, which is working to improve conditions inside South Sudan’s prisons, says the constitution was an opportunity to break the cycle of violence.

“It is a litmus test,” he says. “How you go about the death penalty shows whether the state takes issues of human dignity seriously.”