South Sudan (Morning Star News) – Prosecutors produced no new evidence today in the trial of two South Sudanese pastors facing the death penalty on charges of undermining the Sudanese constitution, sources said.
At a hearing in Khartoum in the trial of the Rev. Yat Michael and the Rev. Peter Yein Reith, the same two officials of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) who testified previously offered the same weak evidence as before, a relative in the courtroom told Morning Star News.
A defense attorney asked the NISS officials to produce evidence for the charges, including spying (Article 53) – which along with “undermining the constitution” is punishable by death or life imprisonment – and waging war against the state (Article 51), which calls for the death penalty.
“When the two witnesses were asked by the defense attorney, they could not answer the question,” the relative said.
The pastors are also charged with disclosure and receipt of official information or documents (Article 55); arousing feelings of discontent among regular forces (Article 62); breach of public peace (Article 69); and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs (Article125).
A NISS official previously testified that the pastors were collecting information for a human rights group.
The court heard the defense’s presentation as well as the case for the prosecution at today’s hearing, relatives said, but did not issue a ruling. The attorney defending the two pastors said the trial was going well. The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday (June 18).
Michael, 49, was arrested on Dec. 21, 2014 after speaking at the church service in Khartoum, and the 36-year-old Reith was arrested on Jan. 11 after submitting a letter from leaders of their denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), inquiring about the whereabouts of Michael.
On June 4 the two pastors were transferred from a low-security prison in Omdurman to the high-security Kober Prison in Khartoum North and are being held in separate cells. Relatives said the church leaders were in chains as they were brought to their respective cells.
“We have been denied visits to our husbands since we last saw them on June 3,” the wife of one of the pastors told Morning Star News.
Prison administrators told family members the church leaders were transferred to the high-security prison, and that relatives were forbidden to visit them, because of actions – possibly taking photos – by some foreigners who had visited them.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that the defense attorneys have also been denied access to the pastors since the transfer to the high-security prison.
NISS has assigned them to separate cells to put more psychological pressure on them in the face of the widespread attention their case has garnered from the international community, media and right groups, sources said.
“I am asking for your prayers,” said the wife of one of the pastors. Another relative lamented, “This is more clear persecution of them. Please let’s keep praying for God help to our brothers in chains.”
NISS is manned by hard-line Islamists who are given broad powers to arrest Christians, black Africans, South Sudanese and other people lowly regarded in the country that President Omar al-Bashir has pledged will be fully Arabic and Islamic. The charges appear to be based solely on the two pastors’ nationality, race and faith, sources said.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2010 charged Bashir with genocide and crimes against humanity in relation to conflict in Darfur, and today he avoided arrest over the war crime charges after South Africa let him return to Khartoum in spite of an order for his arrest, according to the BBC.
After Bashir was allowed to leave Johannesburg, where he was attending an African Union (AU) summit, an ICC official called South Africa’s failure to detain Bashir “disappointing,” the BBC reported. The Pretoria High Court issued an order for his arrest after his airplane had taken flight.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said countries who have signed onto the ICC’s statutes, such as South Africa, must implement the warrant for Bashir’s arrest, according to the BBC.
Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, shortly before the secession of South Sudan the following month, the government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.
The Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church that Michael had encouraged in December was the subject of government harassment, arrests and demolition of part of its worship center as Muslim investors took it over. NISS officials appear to be determined to punish the pastors for their support of the embattled congregation, sources said.
Other Christians in the Bahri congregation have also been arrested. Police in North Khartoum on Dec. 2 beat and arrested 38 Christians from the church that Michael encouraged and fined most of them. They were released later that night.
On Oct. 5, 2013, Sudan’s police and security forces broke through the church fence, beat and arrested Christians in the compound and asserted parts of the property belonged to a Muslim investor accompanying them. As Muslims nearby shouted, “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” plainclothes police and personnel from NISS broke onto the property aboard a truck and two Land Cruisers. After beating several Christians who were in the compound, they arrested some of them; they were all released later that day.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, when Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. The Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced in April 2013 that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.
Sudan since 2012 has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings on the pretext that they belonged to South Sudanese. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians (see Morning Star News).
Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the country remain on the list in its 2015 report.
Sudan ranked sixth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face most persecution, moving up from 11th place the previous year.