(World Watch monitor) Two South Sudanese pastors on trial in Sudan for, amongst other things, “spying” have been freed by the Judge of Khartoum North Central Court, Ahmed Ghaboush. Had they been found guilty of this, they could have faced the death penalty.
Yat Michael had taken his child to Khartoum for medical treatment when he was arrested on 14 December, 2014, after being asked to preach at a local church during his stay. Peter Yen was arrested in January 2015 when he went to enquire about Michael’s whereabouts. The two men were then reported as missing until Sudanese authorities revealed that they were being held in prison for “crimes against the state”.
Guilty on some accounts, but freed due to time served
The DPA German news agency reported that the judge found Yat Michael guilty of a “breach of the peace” (Article 69) and Peter Yen (also known as David Reith) guilty of “managing a criminal or terrorist organisation” (Article 65). But he ordered both be released, as they had already served the sentences for these offences through their eight-month stay in prison.
Experts said there were fears that they would have been convicted of the more serious charges; it was felt the judge was under pressure to balance local expectations on him to uphold the principles of the Sharia-governed state, with adherence to international human rights standards.
The families told Radio Tamazuj, an online independent news service broadcast in Sudan and South Sudan, that they were “delighted”.
The last time the men were in court was 23 July, when their legal team submitted their written closing arguments.
Observers from a number of foreign embassies were present that day. An official from the Sudanese Ministry of Justice told one of the pastors’ lawyers that the extent of outside interest had led the government to take a very close interest in the case.
Thabith Al Zubir, one of the lawyers defending the pastors, asked the judge on 23 July to drop the case because the defence had refuted all the accusations levelled against the two men, and because there was no clear evidence against them.
The defence lawyers had also argued that their clients were arrested illegally by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
They said Pastor Yat Michael did not violate Sudan’s law when he preached in Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church on 14 December, because he was just carrying out his duty as a pastor. “To urge believers to be zealous for their church is not an insult against God,” one lawyer said, referring to NISS arresting Yat Michael after his sermon in the church in the Bahri area, just north of the Sudanese capital.
“Justice requires that you don’t judge simply because you [suspect], without any concrete evidence,” the lawyer said.
In addition, the lawyers raised concern over the fact that Yat Michael and Peter Yen were being tried illegally for insulting religion.
They also said that the pastors were illegally detained for a long period of time without trial: “This is illegal and against the bill of rights in Sudan’s constitution.”
Lawyer Al Zubir had called on the court to respect Sudan’s constitution above the powers of the National Intelligence and Security Service to arrest and detain any person for a long period of time without trial.
The lawyers concluded that the court should accept their defence, and drop the charges for lack of evidence: “These charges are built on sand,” they concluded.
“The charges included: complicity in committing crimes with other bodies (Article 21), spying for outsiders (Article 53), and collecting and leaking information to the detriment of Sudanese national security (Article 55).
The charge of undermining the constitutional system (Article 50) has been “dropped”, reported Radio Tamazuj after the 23 July hearing.
Other charges included promoting hatred amongst sects (Article 64); breach of public peace (Article 69); and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs (Article 125). Article 53 carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Defence witnesses testify evidence against the men could have been ‘planted’
At a previous hearing on 14 July, the pastors had stated that some of the “incriminating” documents allegedly found on their computers were not theirs. These included internal church reports, maps showing the population and topography of Khartoum, Christian literature, and a study guide on Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
The pastors acknowledged having the internal church report, though both said they had never seen the study guide on NISS until it was presented in court. They said they had no knowledge of how it got on the computer.
The defence team called two witnesses.
One, ex-army general and 2010 presidential candidate Abdul Aziz Khalid, testified that the maps presented by the prosecution were available to civilians and not classified; therefore the espionage charge against the pastors was without basis.
The other witness was an IT expert, who testified how easy it would have been for others to plant documents on the men’s computers without their knowledge.
The pastors had again been denied access to their legal team ahead of the 14 July hearing, despite an earlier direction that they be allowed 15 minutes with their lawyers.
(At the previous hearing on 2 July, the judge had permitted the defence team only 15 minutes with the pastors in order to prepare their case).
The pastors have also had little access to their families, who were only permitted to visit them in the high-security Kober Prison after they had been held for six months.
Defence lawyer himself arrested day before he was due in court, with church pastor
On 1 July, Mohaned Mustafa – one of the lawyers representing Michael and Yen, together with the Evangelical Bahri Church pastor Hafez – was briefly detained when challenging a government employee who was overseeing the destruction of parts of the Bahri evangelical church complex.
The employee was attempting to destroy a part of the complex that was not within the government order for destruction. It is still not known when the case against the two lawyers will be brought to court.
This is not the first time the Sudanese government has attempted to clamp down on the Evangelical Church of Khartoum.
On December 2, 2014, the church was raided by handfuls of police officers, who arrived in six patrol cars. They beat a number of peaceful sit-in demonstrators with pipes and water sticks and arrested 38 eight members of the church.
After the raid, 20 of the people arrested were sentenced to a fine of 250 Sudanese pounds (roughly $40) after being convicted without legal representation under Articles 65 (criminal and terrorist organisations) and 69 (disturbance of public peace) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code.
The charges were dropped against the remaining 18 individuals.
The sit-in demonstrations were prompted by a corruption scandal, including the sale of church land to investors.
In 2010, the Evangelical Church of Khartoum in Bahri elected a Community Council to control the administration, assets, and investments of the church. The Community Council was plagued by accusations of corruption. The church attempted to resolve the conflict with the church’s General Assembly electing a new Community Council. But the previous Council refused to recognise the new Council and hand over institutional documents.
The government of Sudan intervened on 28 April, 2014 and re-appointed several members of the old Community Council.
Despite not having an official mandate to sell church properties or engage in investment on behalf of the church, these members sold a substantial amount of property.
Yat Michael was arrested after preaching at this church two weeks after the police raid and partial demolition of the church.
During his sermon, he condemned the controversial sale of the church land and property, and the treatment of Christians in Sudan.
The arrest, incarceration and extended trial of Michael and Yen illustrates the pressure Christians face in the Muslim-dominated region.
Praise God these pastors have been released! Thank you to all of you who PRAYED, spoke out, shared their story and signed the petitions. God bless you!
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.