TWO South Sudanese priests who had been under threat of the death penalty were released from prison in Khartoum on Wednesday.
Yat Michael and Peter Reith, both from the South Sudanese Evangelical Presbyterian Church, faced at least six charges, including undermining the constitutional system, espionage, promoting hatred among sects, breach of public peace, and crimes relating to insulting religious beliefs (News, 29 May). The first two offences carry the death penalty or life imprisonment.
At a court hearing on Wednesday, Mr Michael was convicted of inciting hatred, and Mr Reith of breaching public peace. Both were released on the basis of time already served.
Mr Michael had been arrested in December by officers from the Sudanese intelligence services, while preaching during a visit to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum.
Mr Reith was also arrested after he was summoned to the security services’ offices in January because he wrote a letter enquiring about Mr Michael’s arrest. They were held in chains, in solitary confinement, for three weeks.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) believes that the arrest of Mr Michael was connected to a land dispute between the Sudanese authorities and the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church, where he preached.
Since being moved to the maximum-security Kober Prison on 6 June, the pastors had not been allowed visits from their families or legal team, despite repeated appeals, and could consult their lawyers only briefly before court hearings, CSW reported.
The chief executive of CSW, Mervyn Thomas, said that the charity was “overjoyed” at the pastors’ release, but remained “concerned at the irregularities in their case and the ongoing harassment of Christians in Sudan”. He referred to the case of eight Christian women who could face flogging after being accused of dressing indecently.
We will continue to advocate for them and for all others who are being targeted on account of their faith,” he said. “We continue to urge Sudan to uphold its constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion or belief, and its responsibility to promote and protect this right under international law, in order to preserve Sudan’s pluralism and diversity.”
On Thursday, CSW reported that both pastors had been prevented from leaving Sudan. They were informed at Khartoum Airport that a travel ban issued against them was still in force. Their legal team has been toled that the appeal against the ban will be heard on 9 August.