Middle East

Sudan plays down death sentence for apostasy

Amid global outcry, Sudanese government says pregnant Christian has chance to appeal penalty for changing religion.

Last updated: 17 May 2014 12:31
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Sudanese officials are downplaying the death sentence ruling given to a pregnant young Christian woman for apostasy, amid an international outcry.

"Sudan is committed to all human rights and freedom of faith granted in Sudan by the constitution and law," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abu-Bakr Al-Siddiq said, the Reuters news agency reported on Friday.

He added that his ministry trusted the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

The parliament speaker Fatih Izz Al-Din told local radio that the media campaign about the "apostate woman" is aimed at distorting the image of Sudan - a position often deployed by Sudanese officials when met with outrage over controversial events.

He also said the verdict would go through all the judicial stages to reach the constitutional court and that there would be a chance to appeal. His comments were reported on Friday by the state news agency, SUNA.

The case of Mariam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag has sparked international outrage. 

Ishag, a pregnant 27-year-old Christian, was convicted of apostasy for refusing to renounce her faith. The govenment said it had given her three days to "return to Islam".

They also sentenced her to 100 lashes for marrying a Christian man, which is unrecognised under Islamic law.

Ishag says she was born to a Sudanese Muslim father, who was absent, and raised by an Ethiopian Christian mother.

But Izz Al Din maintained she was a Muslim raised in an Islamic environment and said that her brother, who is also a Muslim, had filed the charges.

Her brother's complaint alleged she had gone missing for several years and that her family was shocked to find out she married a Christian, according to her lawyer.

Political distraction

Experts in Islamic law called the ruling outrageous. 

"The punishment has little to do with religion and serves as a political distraction," Mohamed Ghilan, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, told Al Jazeera. "This is a ploy by the Sudanese regime to appear as 'defenders of Islam' to mitigate their corruption."

Activists have become increasingly vocal against President Omar al-Bashir, underscoring perceived corruption, political impasse and a plethora of internal conflicts.

Faced with these challenges, the Sudanese government found itself politically marginalised, Ghilan said. "The punishment is an attempt to give the regime legitimacy with the more conservative crowd."

"Historically, this sort of punishment was only implemented in cases where people didn’t just simply convert due to lack of conviction, but they would also join an opposing force," Ghilan said.

In this context, apostasy was tantamount to treason, according to Khaleel Mohammed, associate professor of religion at San Diego State University.

"One did not get sentenced to death simply for converting. Unfortunately, this does happen in certain places like Afghanistan and Sudan, but these judges are not very educated in Islamic law and are working from a tribal perspective."

Further, even in the context of war, women were historically excluded from punishment, Ghilan said. "Women could not be executed because of the vehement declaration of the prophet not to harm women."


Al Jazeera and agencies
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