JUBA, South Sudan (BP) — A judge in Sudan has ruled there is enough evidence to charge two pastors with crimes punishable by death.
The charges, including espionage and promoting hatred among or against sects, were filed July 2, months after authorities arrested Yat Michael last December and Peter Yein Reith in January, both of South Sudanese origin, for their efforts to encourage a North Khartoum church in the face of a government-aided takeover of the church’s property.
Though South Sudan gained independence from Sudan and the Islamic regime of Omar al-Bashir in 2011, Christians in Sudan have faced increasing persecution from al-Bashir and the National Intelligence and Security Service of Sudan (NISS), according to reports from the Human Rights Watch organization.
Human Rights Watch states on its website that Sudanese authorities regularly suppress civil society groups, censor the media and detain political activists. “President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur, was re-elected in 2015 in a poll that did not meet standards for free and fair elections,” the organization states.
Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has described the detention of the two pastors as “a clear example of the Sudanese government’s persecution of the country’s small Christian community,” Swett said in a statement in June after initial court proceedings against the two pastors.
“They are on trial simply for demanding and urging their congregation to remain strong in the face of restrictions on their constitutional right to religious freedom,” Swett said of the two men, who are part of the Presbyterian Evangelical Church Khartoum Bahri.
USCIRF “urges the U.S. government and international community to publicly speak out against the trial, demand the pastors’ immediate release and press the Sudanese government to abide by its constitutional and international commitments to respect religious freedom for all,” Swett said.
Sudan has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999 for its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations. Sudan ranked sixth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face most persecution.
The July 2 ruling opening the possibility of death penalties against the two pastors appalled but did not surprise observers who have watched as officials from Sudan’s NISS have presented the same evidence taken from the pastor’s computers — maps and other easily accessible documents — at each hearing over the previous two months. The American Center for Law and Justice reported that NISS also presented as evidence a study guide on NISS allegedly found on one of the laptops confiscated by agents of the intelligence and security agency, and that the pastors told the judge they do not know how the guide got onto the computer.
“Besides these documents, the only evidence brought by the prosecution against the Christian pastors was a sermon Pastor Michael gave, a sermon that was supported by Christian doctrine shared by their common denomination,” ACLJ international legal director Tiffany Barrans said in a statement.
According to Morning Star News, the charge of spying (Article 53 of the Sudanese Penal Code) is punishable by death, life imprisonment or prison and confiscation of property. The charge of promoting hatred among or against sects (Article 64) is punishable by up to two years in prison. The pastors are also charged with undermining the constitutional system (Article 50), punishable by death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment and confiscation of property; disclosure and obtaining information and official documents (Article 55), punishable by two years in prison or a fine; blasphemy/insulting religious creeds (Article 125), punishable by one year of imprisonment or a fine or no more than 40 lashes; disturbance of the public peace (Article 69), punishable by six months of prison, or a fine or no more than 20 lashes; and joint acts in execution of a criminal conspiracy (Article 21).
In the July 2 hearing, the judge told defense attorney Mohaned Mustafa he had 10 to 15 minutes to prepare a defense for the two pastors, according to the ACLJ. When Mustafa said he needed more time, a hearing was set for July 14.
Mustafa requested access to his clients at the end of the hearing, but the judge said he had the authority only to grant him visitation in court, although the right to access to an attorney is guaranteed under Sudanese law.
The previous day, Mustafa had been arrested along with a pastor of the church. They were released on bail, charged with obstructing a public servant during the course of his duty (Article 99), punishable by up to six months imprisonment, a fine or both.
Michael and Reith were transferred from a low-security prison in Omdurman to the high-security Kober Prison in Khartoum in early June and were being held in separate cells. Michael, 49, was arrested after his sermon in December, and the 36-year-old Reith was arrested on Jan. 11 after submitting a letter from leaders of their denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, inquiring about Michael’s whereabouts.
The Presbyterian Evangelical Church where Michael spoke has been the target of government harassment, arrests and demolition of part of its worship center as Muslim investors have tried to take it over. NISS is manned by hard-line Islamists who are given broad powers to arrest Christians, black Africans, South Sudanese and others in disfavor in the country.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, when Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. Sudan’s minister of guidance and endowments announced in April 2013 that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population. Sudan has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings on the pretext that they belonged to South Sudanese. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians.