After several false starts, the trial of two South Sudanese pastors, Yat Michael, 49, and Peter Yen, 37, who stand accused of crimes against the state of Sudan and could face the death penalty, has been rescheduled again to 15 June. The court is then due to hear testimony from the complainant, Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).
The reason given for further delay was that the prosecutors in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, need more time to build their case. According to the defense team, the judge indicated that it will take at least 10 days to reach a decision. Both men belong to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.
At a previous hearing on 31 May an investigator representing the NISS, Mohammed Khair Ibrahim, told the court about material he said was found on the defendants’ computers, including a series of reports, maps and an advanced course on dealing with the psychological aspects of investigation belonging to the NISS.
On 13 December 2014, Michael arrived in Sudan with his wife and child, whom they had brought to Khartoum for medical treatment. While visiting the country he was asked to preach at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum in Bahri on 21 December, which had been partly destroyed by the Sudanese authorities earlier that month. After his sermon he was arrested by security officials.
It was reported that Michael had condemned the controversial sale of the church land and property, and the treatment of Christians in Sudan.
The church had been sold by the Community Council of the Church, a body appointed by the Government of Sudan’s Ministry of Endowments and Guidance, which reportedly did not have a mandate to sell it.
Sudanese police forces had earlier raided the church on 2 December 2014 to break up a sit-in demonstration organised by members of the congregation protesting the sale. Thirty eight people were arrested, and 20 convicted of disturbing the public peace, and membership of criminal or terrorist organisations (following the protest), reports the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS).
Yen, who had arrived in Sudan in September 2014, was arrested in January 2015 from his home, which is attached to Khartoum’s Al Gereif church, after delivering a letter to the Religious Affairs Office asking about Michael’s arrest. Yen had also spoken out about his opposition to the sale of land by the Community Council, and voiced concern on the situation facing Christians in Sudan.
Both pastors were not allowed communication with other people until their first family visits on 2 March 2015. They were transferred to Kober prison on 1 March, and charged by the Office of the Prosecutor for a series of crimes against the state on 4 May.
They were charged under Articles 21 (joint acts in execution of criminal conspiracy), 50 (undermining the constitutional system), 51 (waging war against the state), 53 (espionage against the country), 55 (disclosure and obtaining information and official documents), 64 (promoting hatred amongst or against sects), 69 (disturbance of the public peace), and 125 (insulting religious creeds) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code. Articles 50 and 51 carry the death penalty, while the other articles carry flogging sentences.
The ACPJS says it believes the criminal charges against Michael and Yen are based solely on their religious convictions and outspoken criticism of the ruling party. It says that “their continued detention and criminal proceedings are discriminatory and in violation of constitutional and international law”, and that “there is speculation that the trial of the two men is intended to send a message to other Christian leaders in Sudan to refrain from criticising the treatment of Christian minorities in Sudan and the policies of the ruling party”.
The pastors are being represented by a team of pro-bono lawyers.
According to a report in the Sudan Tribune, the investigator in the case, Mohamed Khair Ibrahim, tried to convince the court that Yen is managing an organisation working to distort the image of Sudan through reports sent to organisations that are hostile to the country, so that the information could be used in human rights reports.
He said lectures and training packages belonging to NISS were found on Michael’s personal computer. “It is the same curriculum that is taught in all stages at the NISS, including a package on psychological aspects to deal with investigators which is one of the advanced courses in the Bureau,” Ibrahim said, adding that Michael offered no explanation as to why he possessed the training package. Ibrahim said investigations led them to believe that Michael was conducting intelligence work and this had “prompted him to keep the curriculum despite its secrecy”.
Ibrahim displayed a picture of Sudan’s President Omer Hassan al-Bashir, with the word ‘WANTED’ underneath; Ibrahim said it demonstrated that Michael was trying to portray a bad image of the president. He also presented a drawing said to be found in the first defendant’s PC, showing a map of Sudan divided into five ethnic states, and said that the goal was to show South Kordofan and Darfur as part of South Sudan. He added that the seized information revealed maps and statistics, which had been compiled to tarnish the image of Sudan.
Among them, he said, was a report claiming that children in Darfur are not allowed to enter school until they have memorised the Quran, which was cited as a reason for under-enrolment in schools and illiteracy in Darfur. Ibrahim stressed that memorising the Quran is not an enrolment requirement in schools.
In exclusive interviews, both men spoke by telephone from their prison cell with CBN News. Michael said he’d experienced psychological intimidation and had not been allowed to speak with his family for two months. Yen said he was not afraid despite facing possible execution.
On paper, Sudan’s constitution and international human rights commitments guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
Article 31 of Sudan’s Interim National Constitution of 2005 says that all people are “equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination, as to race, colour, sex, language, religious creed, political opinion, or ethnic origin, to the equal protection of the law”.
Article 38 further provides that “every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship”.
But Sudan ranks sixth in Open Doors International’s 2015 World Watch List of 50 Countries where Christians face most persecution. Sudan’s almost two million Christians face strict laws imposed by the Islamic government, which has ruled that apostasy is still legally punishable by death. Sudanese who are seen as non-Arab are most vulnerable to being punished under the apostasy law.
There was global condemnation for the case of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim, when a Sudanese court sentenced her to death on charges of converting from Islam to Christianity and marrying a Christian South Sudanese-American.
Ibrahim fled the country in July 2014 following a long legal battle against the apostasy charge. During her time in prison she gave birth to a daughter while shackled to the floor. She now lives with her husband and two children in the United States.
ACJPS says that the case of the two pastors demonstrates the internal contradictions of Sudanese law and its incompatibility with Sudan’s diverse population and international commitments. International law strictly prohibits discrimination based on religion.
The Sudan government applies other restrictions targeting Christians. Support for the local church from Christians visiting from overseas is difficult because the government restricts the number of missionaries they let in by refusing work and travel visas. The number of expatriate Christians – such as those from South Sudan – has shrunk since 2013, when they were ordered to leave the country.
Despite the restrictions, the church in Sudan is showing growth, according to World Watch List research. The Episcopalians, the Church of Christ in Sudan, as well as the movement to which the two imprisoned pastors belong – the Presbyterians – have seen significant numbers turning to Christianity.
According to Amnesty International, the NISS is an agency that is above the law. Priscilla Nyagoah, a campaigner for Sudan and South Sudan at Amnesty International’s regional office in East Africa, said in a recent blog that the Sudanese parliament amended its constitution in January to extend NISS’s mandate to perform duties currently carried out by the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, adding that the amendment doesn’t require the agency to abide by relevant international, regional and domestic law. “Conferring an intelligence agency such as the NISS with such a mandate, in addition to its already extensive powers of arrest, detention, search and seizure under the National Security Service Act, is particularly alarming,” Nyagoah wrote.
Nyagoah is calling for a human-rights compliant legal framework for the NISS, which would subject its arrest and detention practices to judicial oversight, and ensure that NISS agents perpetrating human-rights violations are held to account. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recently sent out a message against the impunity of the NISS, by declaring the Republic of Sudan guilty of violating the rights of three human-rights defenders while in NISS detention in November 2008. The decision, published in February this year, requests Sudan to pay adequate compensation to Monim Elgak, Amir Suleiman and Osman Hummeida and to prosecute all those responsible for the illegal incarceration and torture of the three.