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Two South Sudanese Pastors face death penalty for voicing opposition to corruption scandal at Khartoum Bahri Church

(2 June 2015) Two South Sudanese pastors are currently on trial in Khartoum for criminal charges which carry the death penalty under Sudan’s 1991 Penal Code after making public remarks criticizing a corruption scandal at a Khartoum Church and the treatment of Christians in Sudan. The two men Yad Michael, (m), 49 years of age, and Peter Yen, (m), 26 years of age, were detained by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) on 14 December 2014 and 11 January 2015 respectively, and held incommunicado until their first family visits on 2 March 2015. They were transferred to Kober prison on 1 March after being charged by the Office of the Prosecutor for Crimes against the State. Their first court session was on 19 May, and the second on 31 May. The next court session is scheduled for 15 June 2015.

Mr. Michael and Mr. Yen are both Christian missionaries and South Sudanese nationals visiting Sudan who had been vocal about the controversial sale of land and property belonging to the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church and the treatment of Christians in Sudan. The sale was made by the Community Council of the Church, a body appointed by the Government of Sudan’s Ministry of Endowments and Guidance which reportedly does not have a mandate to sell church land. Sudanese police forces violently raided the Church on 2 December 2014 to break up a sit-in demonstration organized by members of the congregation protesting the sale. 38 people were arrested and 20 convicted of disturbing the public peace and membership of criminal or terrorist organisations.

Mr. Michael, who arrived in the country on 13 December, was arrested by the NISS on 14 December after preaching that day at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum Bahri. During the sermon, he had condemned the sale of the church land and property.  Peter Yen, who arrived in Sudan in September 2014, was arrested by the NISS from his home attached to Al Gereif Church in Khartoum on 11 January. Both men and Mr. Yen’s wife had their laptops confiscated by the NISS. Mr. Yen had also been vocal about his opposition to the sale of land by the Community Council and voiced concern on the situation facing Christians in Sudan.

Both pastors were initially detained by the NISS in Rayed, Khartoum, before being transferred to Kober Prison on 1 March 2015. On 1 March 2015, the Prosecutor for Crimes against the State, charged them under articles 21 (joint acts in execution of criminal conspiracy), 50 (undermining the constitutional system), 51 (waging war against the state), 53 (espionage against the country), 55 (disclosure and obtaining information and official documents), 64 (promoting hatred amongst or against sects), 69 (disturbance of the public peace), and 125 (insulting religious creeds) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code. Articles 50 and 51 carry the death penalty, while other articles carry flogging sentences. They were held incommunicado by the NISS until 2 March, when they were permitted their first family visits in Kober prison.  On 28 and 29 March 2015, Mr. Michael and Mr. Yen launched a hunger strike for two days objecting to their continued detention without trial.

The first court session took place on 19 May, and the second on 31 May. The next court session, scheduled for 15 June 2015, will hear testimony from the complainant in the case, the NISS. The men are being represented by a team of pro-bono lawyers.

ACJPS believes that the serious criminal charges against Mr. Michael and Mr. Yen have been levied solely on the basis of their religious convictions and outspoken criticism of the ruling party, and as such, that their continued detention and criminal proceedings are discriminatory and in violation of constitutional and international law guarantees of equality before the law. There is also speculation that the trial of the two men is intended to send a message to other Christian leaders in Sudan to refrain from criticizing the treatment of Christian minorities in Sudan and the policies of the ruling party.

Sudan’s constitution and international human rights commitments guarantee the freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Article 31 of Sudan’s Interim National Constitution of 2005 provides that all persons are “equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination, as to race, colour, sex, language, religious creed, political opinion, or ethnic origin, to the equal protection of the law.” Article 38 further provides that “every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship”.

This case demonstrates the internal contractions of Sudanese law and its incompatibility with Sudan’s diverse population and international commitments. International law strictly prohibits discrimination based on religion. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, interpreting Sudan’s obligations under the African Charter, previously found in Amnesty International and Others v. Sudan that Sudan was in breach of its obligations under Article 8 of the Charter owing to legal and other restrictions that inhibit the ability of individuals to freely practice their own religion.

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) condemns the use of the death penalty in all cases, and corporal punishment, such as floggings. 

Background

ACJPS has documented increased restrictions since 2013 on religious freedoms, particularly restrictions on members of Christian churches in Sudan. This includes raids on churches and harassment and arrests of church members by members of Sudan’s NISS.

On 2 December 2014 the Evangelical Church of Khartoum Bahri was raided by police forces in six cars. They beat a number of peaceful demonstrators with pipes and water sticks and arrested thirty eight members of the church. After the raid, twenty of the people arrested were sentenced to a fine of 250 Sudanese pounds (roughly $40) after being convicted without legal representation under articles 65 (criminal and terrorist organisations) and 69 (disturbance of public peace) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code. The charges were dropped against the remaining eighteen individuals. The sit – in demonstrations were prompted by a corruption scandal, including the sale of church lands to investors. In 2010 the Evangelical Church of Khartoum Bahri elected a Community Council to control the administration, assets, and investments of the Church. The Community Council was plagued by accusations of corruption. The Evangelical Church attempted to resolve the conflict, with the Church’s General Assembly electing a new Community Council. The previous Council refused to recognise the new Council and hand over institutional documents. The Government of Sudan’s Ministry of Endowments and Guidance intervened on 28 April 2014, and re-appointed several members of the old Community Council. Despite not having an official mandate to sell church properties or engage in investment on behalf of the church, they sold a substantial amount of property.

ACJPS has also documented apostasy charges, which carry the death penalty, levied against Christian women.

On 15 May 2014, Al-Haj Yousef Criminal Court in Khartoum Bahri confirmed the sentence of 100 lashings and the death penalty by hanging against 27-year old Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, a Christian woman convicted for adultery and apostasy on 11 May.  Meriam gave birth in her prison cell, shackled, before her convictions were overturned on appeal following international outcry. Following her release from detention, she was briefly prevented from leaving Sudan with her husband and children owing to new charges levied against her concerning disputed travel documentation issued by South Sudan. She later left the country.

Earlier in May 2014 the Al Gadarif Criminal Court dropped charges against another woman accused of apostasy after she recanted her Christian faith and converted to Islam to avoid the death penalty. A criminal complaint had been lodged against her by a police officer at the National Identity office in Al Gadarif town after she applied for a national identity card. On the application, she was asked to declare her own faith and that of her father. The criminal complaint was filed when she declared that she was a Christian, married with eight children to a Christian man, and that her father was a Muslim.

ACJPS has also documented restrictions, including forced closures and cancellation of registrations, of political parties and organisations affiliated with reformist visions of Islam. On 1 May 2014 Sudan’s Political Parties Affairs Council (PPAC) rejected an application from the Republican Party, founded by Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, to register as a political party. Taha was executed days after being convicted of apostasy in 1985 on the basis of his opposition to Sudan’s interpretation of Sharia law. The PPAC argued that the Republican Party’s political ideology contradicted the constitutional provision that law in Sudan be based on Islamic Sharia law and the conditions for the establishment of political parties in Sudan.  The Republican Party proclaims to oppose Islamic fundamentalism and promote secularism. The Mahmoud Mohamed Taha Cultural Centre was raided and forced to close by the NISS on 18 January 2015, the 30th anniversary of Taha’s execution, whilst a commemoration of his life was taking place.

Contact:

Katherine Perks, (English), +256 775072136 / info@acjps.org.

Mohamed Badawi, (Arabic), +256 783 693 689 / info@acjps.org.

This post is also available in: Arabic