Christian mother Meriam Ibrahim freed, then detained again in Sudan

24 June 2014

Meriam Ibrahim , a Christian mother sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan, has been cleared on appeal and freed from prison – only to be detained at the airport with her family as they tried to leave the country.

The 27-year-old was released from Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison on Monday (23 June) along with her two children, 22-month-old son Martin and newborn Maya, who have been locked up with her. They were reunited with Daniel Wani, Meriam’s husband and the children’s father.

Meriam with her two children, Martin and newborn Maya, in prison
Meriam with her two children, Martin and newborn Maya, in prison

But on Tuesday (24 June), the family were detained at Khartoum airport by around 40 security agents as they tried to leave the country, to go to the US via South Sudan. The powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) said Meriam was arrested after she presented emergency travel documents issued by the South Sudanese embassy while carrying an American visa. She has been charged with obtaining a false travel document, which is punishable with a jail sentence. The family are being held at Khartoum police station.

The BBC’s James Copnall said it is very possible that the NISS, which frequently intervenes in the country’s politics, did not like the decision to release Meriam, and re-arresting her and her family was a way of making this point to the rest of the Sudanese government.

The matter has now escalated into a diplomatic row, with the Sudanese Foreign Ministry summoning the American and South Sudanese ambassadors. South Sudan’s presidential spokesman said the family’s travel documents were issued from the country’s embassy in Khartoum because Daniel is a South Sudanese citizen.

Meriam’s release on Monday was ordered by Khartoum Court of Appeals, which cancelled the previous court ruling of 15 May that had sentenced Meriam to death for apostasy and to 100 lashes for adultery in a case that sparked an international outcry.

Daniel, who has dual US and South Sudanese citizenship, had previously said that the family would need to leave Sudan if Meriam was freed and has been seeking asylum for them in America. Their case has gained the support of 38 US lawmakers, who last Thursday (19 June) wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to prioritise the matter. They called for Meriam to be granted asylum or refugee status in the country and for the couple’s two children to be registered as US citizens.

The US says it is working with Sudan to ensure that Meriam can leave the country.

Although cleared of all charges, there are concerns for Meriam’s safety as well as that of her family and legal team. Meriam’s accuser, a man claiming to be her brother, had publicly warned that the family would carry out the death penalty in the event that she was acquitted. And in an interview published on Wednesday (26 June), Al Samani Al Hadi Mohamed Abdullah reinforced the threat:

Our family is not convinced by the decision of the court. The law has failed to maintain our rights, and now it is a matter of honour. Christians deface our honour, and we know how to take revenge for that.

Extremist groups in Sudan have been pressurising the government to uphold the sentence and have also issued death threats against Meriam’s legal team, saying their actions have been “un-Islamic”.

Under the strict application of sharia law in Sudan, Meriam has been regarded as a Muslim because she was born to a Muslim father, even though he left the family when she was six and her mother raised her as a Christian. She was considered to have left Islam – committed apostasy – even though she never practised it and has maintained her Christian faith throughout. Meriam was also considered to have committed adultery because, under sharia, a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man.

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