NEW YORK – Sudan on Thursday sentenced a 27-year-old mother to hang for apostasy when she refused to renounce her family and the Christian faith in which she was raised. She is also to receive 100 lashes for adultery beforehand.
Meriam Yahya Ibrahim was raised as a Christian by her Ethiopian mother. Her father, a Sudanese Muslim, was reportedly absent from her upbringing, but because she was born in Sudan, she is considered Muslim by the state. Ibrahim married a South Sudanese-American Christian man, Daniel Wani, but because the state religion in Sudan is Islam, the marriage is considered void and Ibrahim is considered to have committed adultery, and to have converted away from Islam, by marrying Wani.
Ibrahim has a 20-month-old son, Martin, who is being held in jail with her, and she is eight months pregnant. It is unclear whether she will be executed immediately after giving birth or if the court will wait two years, as local media has reported.
She has been in jail since February.
According to Amnesty International, she was arrested in August 2013 after a family member reported that she was committing adultery because of her marriage. The charge of apostasy was added the following February, when she said she was Christian.
“We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam. I sentence you to be hanged to death,” the judge said during her sentencing on Thursday, addressing Ibrahim by her Muslim name, Adraf al-Hadi Muhammad Abdullah, AFP reported.
Ibrahim, in court, insisted that she is Christian and never committed apostasy, AFP said. Her husband has also insisted to the media that she was “never Muslim.”
Wani has reportedly reached out to the American Embassy in Khartoum, to no avail.
Ibrahim’s trial is the first of its kind in Sudan, Reuters reported, and it would be the first time someone has been executed in Sudan for apostasy. The trial has created an outcry among Christian groups in the West and Sudanese groups.
Amnesty International released a statement on Wednesday calling the ruling “abhorrent.”
“Amnesty International believes that Meriam is a prisoner of conscience, convicted solely because of her religious beliefs and identity, and must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Manar Idriss, Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher.
Sudan Change Now Movement, a youth group, said in a statement, “The details of this case expose the regime’s blatant interference in the personal life of Sudanese citizens.”
Another rights worker in Sudan, whose name was withheld for security reasons, also told Christian outlet Morning Star News, “We are fighting for Meriam’s life, freedom and fair treatment – according to the law, if she had been a Muslim she should be killed soon after she gives birth to her child.”
“We grieve today at the sentencing to death of a mother, pregnant with her second child, for the expression of her faith and legal marriage to a practicing Christian,” said International Christian Concern regional manager William Stark in a statement. “ICC fears Meriam could be the first of many more Christians to suffer under an increasingly radicalized Sudanese government intent on enforcing Shari’a [Islamic] law throughout the land.”
A representative for the UN secretary-general told Talk Radio News, “the case of Ms. Yahya appears to be a clear violation of freedom of religion.”
Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and the right to change religion.
On Tuesday, the US, UK, Canadian and Dutch embassies in Khartoum released a joint statement in English and Arabic expressing “deep concern.”
“We call upon the government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion,” the statement said, “including one’s right to change one’s faith or beliefs, a right which is enshrined in international human rights law as well as in Sudan’s own 2005 Interim Constitution.”
Under section 126 of the 1991 Sudan Penal Code, apostasy is a crime punishable by death.
Those accused of apostasy are given a chance to repent “within a period decided by the court” – in Ibrahim’s case, three days, and if they do not repent then they are killed.
The US State Department on Thursday afternoon said they were "deeply disturbed" over Ibrahim's sentencing. "We understand the court sentence can be appealed," spokesperson Marie Harf said. "We continue to call upon the Government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, a right which is enshrined in Sudan’s own 2005 Interim Constitution as well as international human rights law."
Reuters contributed to this report.