July 26, 2014

Meriam Ibrahim, the Christian woman who saw her death sentence for apostasy overturned, has been released after being accused of attempting to use forged travel documents by passport officials. Ms Ibrahim was detained along with her Christian-American husband Daniel Wani and two young children at Khartoum airport in Sudan for trying to use documents issued by the South Sudanese embassy to flee the country. Eman Abdul-Rahman, the lawyer for 27-year-old, said she was released from a police station after foreign diplomats pressed the government to free her.

In a statement issued on its Facebook page, Sudan’s security service said earlier this week that passport police had “arrested” Mr Ibrahim after she presented “emergency travel documents issued by the South Sudanese embassy and carrying an American visa”.

Ms Ibrahim, whose father was Muslim but who was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother, was convicted of apostasy for marrying a Christian and refusing to renounce her Christian faith during a four-day grace period. She was sentenced to death while eight months pregnant and gave birth in prison with her legs chained in February. Her sentence sparked an international outcry and led to campaigns headed by Amnesty International calling for her release.

When rumour of her release from prison first surfaced, we didn’t dare to believe it. When it was confirmed by the Sudanese authorities, we began to have real hope. When she walked out of Omdurman women’s prison on Monday afternoon, we finally had faith: Meriam Ibrahim, after six months on death row for her religious beliefs, was free. What is happening in Sudan? Why the confusion? How can a woman whose incarceration caused headlines around the world – with Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Ban Ki-moon all discussing her case – be treated in such a way?

Sudanese media claim that the US vice consul was with them at the time of their arrest, and Ms Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, said that they were on their way to Washington DC. Mr Wani was born in South Sudan before independence, and has dual US citizenship. Suffering from muscular dystrophy, and in a wheelchair, he lives in New Hampshire and had been trying to secure permission for his wife to join him in the US when she was first arrested, in December. What appears to have irked the authorities is that they had not approved the family’s moves – or perhaps that her release was being seen as a global human rights victory.

With no direct flights from Sudan to the US, due to sanctions, South Sudan was to be a transit country. Washington placed sanctions on Sudan in 1993, listing Khartoum as state sponsor of terrorism for hosting prominent militants including Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal. It added a trade embargo in 1997.

The past few days have been mainly about politics. But in the beginning it was certainly about religion – Sudan imposed Sharia law in 1983, and apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Sudan hasn’t put anyone to death for apostasy since 1985, and the application of Sharia in the country is often clumsy, inconsistent and dictated by political whims. Furthermore, Ms Ibrahim’s case became muddied by claim and counter-claim as to her childhood faith. She insisted she was raised a Christian; other family members vehemently maintained she was a Muslim, and even the death penalty should be given if she did not return.

That added to suspicion that this wasn’t about religion, but rather a nasty family feud – to gain control, it was speculated, of Ms Ibrahim’s successful businesses. That the glamorous woman in the wedding photographs was imprisoned chained to the ground heavily pregnant, certainly resonated more because she was a woman. Would we have reacted with such anger if it was a man? She was arrested because her family denounced her for leaving Islam. Could you imagine a woman in Sudan, which imposes Sharia law, being able to inflict the same punishment on her brother?

“Meriam knows about the campaign to free her, and is grateful. But all she wants is to get out of prison. She doesn’t want to be a star.” According to lawyer, Elshareef Ali Mohamed.



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