On June 23, 2014, Sudanese Christian Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, who had been sentenced to death by a Shariah court in Khartoum, was cleared of all charges by the Appeals Court and freed.
Today, while the world was still reacting with joy and surprise to the news of her release from prison, she and her husband, Daniel Wani, along with toddler son, Martin, and infant daughter, Maya, were re-arrested (some reports say “detained”) at the Khartoum airport while trying to leave the country. At approximately 3:10 pm ET this afternoon, the BBC reported that the family had been re-released and taken to a safe location. What is going on?
This is normal procedure for the Islamic Republic of Sudan. Deceptions, denials, and delays have kept the regime in business for decades. In this case, since Meriam was first arrested in September of 2013, all three of these tactics have been used against her, husband Daniel– a South Sudanese Christian who is an American citizen– and their children.
Khartoum’s Shariah court had sentenced Meriam to death by hanging for the crime of apostasy. Under Shariah she was considered a Muslim because her father was a Muslim, even though she grew up as a Christian under the care of her Ethiopian Orthodox mother. “Witnesses” attempted to provide a Muslim name for her and denied that she had ever been a Christian. The Sudanese government also denied that their incarceration of Meriam was religious persecution. They said it was a legal matter.
Meriam was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes for adultery for her relationship with Daniel. Under Shariah, their marriage was not recognized because a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man. At one point during her captivity, Sudanese officials spread the rumor that she would be released in three days. They deceived many around the world and in the United States who are naïve about Shariah. For days afterwards, advocates had to counter the disinformation that had interrupted the flow of the grassroots movement for Meriam.
The Shariah court judge postponed Meriam’s death sentence for two years, to give her time to breastfeed baby Maya. No such delay was given for the flogging sentence, though. She could have been subjected to the lashes at any day now, if the appeal had not been successful.
But the appeal was successful. Meriam’s attorneys, who themselves have received death threats for defending her, had submitted an appeal soon after the sentence was confirmed by the Shariah court on May 15 and had been waiting to hear the court’s judgment. According to Middle East Concern, “the Appeals Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds, on the basis that the prosecution provided insufficient evidence to prove the claims against Meriam and that the defense had not been given adequate opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or provide their own witnesses.” Not exactly a conversion to religious freedom on the part of the court, but it worked for Meriam.
Hours after Meriam’s acquittal, reports told of the reunion of Daniel, and the joy of the attorneys, who accompanied them to a safe house until they could leave the country. The latest photo (included above) shows the whole brave little band of warriors that defied the Islamist masters of Khartoum. Now members of Congress who had been involved in fighting for Meriam’s freedom began plans for the best strategy to get the Wani family out of Khartoum, urging the State Department to provide the appropriate travel documents to enable them to come to the United States.
Here is where delay entered the picture. According to the BBC, on the morning of June 24, the family was detained at the Khartoum airport by 40 agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). The NISS agents are the real thug troops, the Stasi of Sudan. Again, rumors flew. Which is probably just what the Khartoum regime wanted. Some reports said that they had been arrested as a “threat to national security.” Others said that factions within the government sided with Al-Samani Al-Hadi, the Islamist who claims to be Meriam’s half-brother. He said that she should be executed for dishonoring their Muslim family.
Whatever the case, the world – at least those following closely enough to be up to speed – reacted with outrage again. U.S. Representative Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who sponsored a Congressional resolution (H. Res. 601) condemning Meriam’s death sentence and calling for the State Department to provide her with a safe haven in the United States, issued a statement upon learning of her re-arrest.
“I am appalled by the continued threats against Meriam, her husband, their two young children, and her lawyers,” Franks said. “We must hold Sudanese authorities accountable for this precious family’s safety. Furthermore, the National Intelligence Security Service in Sudan must respect the appeal court’s ruling and allow Meriam and her family to safely leave the country,” he continued. Franks, who is the co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, also spearheaded a letter to Secretary Kerry signed by 38 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Senators Cruz, Ayotte, Shaheen, Blunt, and Rubio, for example, have also been strong advocates for Meriam.
Less than an hour after Franks’ statement was published, reports saying that Meriam had been released again began to surface. It appeared that the family was detained (by the 40 thugs) over problems with their travel documents. According to Reuters, one lawyer said that Meriam had been taken to the police station for questioning over providing false information. A Sudanese official told the BBC that although Meriam was Sudanese, she had emergency South Sudanese travel papers and a U.S. visa.
The latest BBC news, at approximately 5:20 PM ET, quoted State Department representative Marie Harf who said that the Sudan government had assured the U.S. that the family was safe. The BBC reported, “The US says it is working with Sudan to ensure a woman freed from death row can leave the country, amid confusion over whether she is still being held.”
Khartoum excels in confusion. The airport confusion could very well be deliberately caused by the Khartoum regime for no further reason than to inflict parting trauma on the infidels before they leave the country. Or it could be to show the Sudanese people who cheered for Meriam’s freedom just who is in charge. Or, God forbid, it could be used to release the family without a means to leave the country, vulnerable to mob violence, which may or may not in actual fact be regime violence.
Will there be more confusion? More delays, deception, and denials? It is hard to say. But if the U.S. is working with Sudan to ensure Meriam can leave the country, it needs to cut through the confusion and get on with it quickly.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).