Victory for Meriam

Christian woman’s death sentence is overturned -- and what the U.S. must do now.

unnamedOn Monday, June 23, 2014, the Appeals Court in Khartoum overturned the decision of the Shariah court that had condemned the 27 year-old Sudanese Christian mother to death. She has been cleared of all charges. Now she and her two children, Martin, almost two years old, who has been with Meriam throughout her time in Omdurman Women’s Prison, and baby daughter Maya, born in the prison medical center on May 27 while Meriam was in shackles, have been reunited with her South Sudanese Christian husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen. They are reported to be in a safe location at present.

Meriam’s release is a great victory for religious freedom, but she is not out of danger yet. Her life is still threatened by the Islamists who first brought the accusations against her, including a man who claims to be her half-brother.  It is now the responsibility of the U.S. government to protect the wife and children of American citizen, Wani, and to help them to return to Wani’s home in Manchester, New Hampshire.

In addition, the ideology of Shariah and jihad of the Islamists who threatened Meriam is the official ideology of the Sudanese government. This supremacist ideology still threatens the freedom, dignity, and very lives of all the Sudanese people. Meriam is the starfish flung back into the ocean when so many are stranded on the beach.

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. She 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. The death sentence had been postponed for two years, to give Meriam time to breastfeed baby Maya, but she could have been subjected to the lashes at any day now, if the appeal had not been successful.

Meriam’s attorneys 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 in a June 23 news release, “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.”

Meriam’s courageous attorneys, who have themselves received death threats for representing her, were described as “overjoyed” at the verdict. One attorney, Al-Sharif Ali, declared that it was Meriam’s “strong personality” that “forced the Sudanese judiciary to respect religious freedom.”  When given the opportunity to renounce her faith in Christ to save her life, Meriam refused and told the Sharia court judge that she was a Christian and would remain a Christian. When he addressed her with a Muslim name she refused to acknowledge him. During her imprisonment, Muslim clerics continually tried to persuade her to recant. But Meriam was resolute.

Tina Ramirez, Executive Director of Hardwired, a non-profit organization working to end global religious repression, explained the larger significance of Meriam’s release, saying, "We are witnessing a historic moment - in the three decades of President Bashir's brutal dictatorship millions have lost their lives, yet here stands one defenseless and innocent young pregnant woman who forced President Bashir to respect her dignity and religious freedom."

Ramirez continued by saying that Meriam “called Bashir's bluff. Her victory today is a victory for all the people of Sudan fighting against religious oppression and we cannot rest until everyone is freed from this dictatorship.”

Amnesty International UK’s Deputy Regional Director Sarah Jackson called the Appeal Court’s ruling, “a small step to redressing the injustice done to Meriam.”

In a June 23 press release, Jackson continued, “However, she should never have been prosecuted.” She stressed that “Meriam was sentenced to death when eight months pregnant for something which should not be a crime. Furthermore, her abhorrent treatment, including being shackled, violated international human rights law against ill-treatment.”

One Sudanese activist says that the case of Meriam sheds a very interesting light on both Sudan’s strategy and the importance of United States and global advocacy. While very happy that Meriam has her freedom, he referred to Sudan’s reversal as “brinksmanship policy.” He warned that some in the international community may reward Sudan President Bashir for Meriam’s release, “as if he did a favor to humanity” while in reality Bashir was using the focus on Meriam as a “smoke screen to hide terrible atrocities in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile.”

It should not be forgotten that at the same time that the world’s attention has been fixed on Meriam, the regime in Khartoum has never ceased its jihad against its own civilians. The Sudanese government has continually bombed civilian sites in the Nuba Mountains – including the one working hospital and a medical clinic.  It has also killed and displaced thousands in Blue Nile State and Darfur. And it is perpetrating ethnic cleansing with a new hybrid militia called the Rapid Strike Force (RSF).

According to the Sudanese activist, the regime “has read where the danger to its survival might come from,” (i.e. it’s treatment of Meriam) “and accordingly made its move.” This demonstrates very clearly that no matter what the U.S. government might say about not having any “leverage” to change Khartoum’s behavior, “the regime in Khartoum will always stop and reverse itself when it senses that the U.S. is serious,” he explained.

Congress displayed its seriousness about the plight of Meriam Ibrahim with numerous bills in both the House and the Senate. On June 12, both Senator Ted Cruz and U.S. Representative Trent Franks spoke at a demonstration co-sponsored by 46 organizations protesting White House inaction for Meriam. And the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Sub-Committee on Africa was planning on a hearing concerning Meriam for Tuesday, June 24 that was postponed at the last minute when it was learned that the Appeals Court was going to make an announcement on Monday.

Members of Congress also contacted the State Department, concerned that State was not doing enough. On June 19, 38 House members (31 Republicans and 8 Democrats) sent a letter to Secretary Kerry urging that he “prioritize” Meriam’s case. Their letter really precipitated such an occurrence as has now taken place: when Meriam is released from prison, steps need to be in place to move her and the rest of the family quickly out of the country. The members of Congress wrote to Kerry that the State Department and Department of Homeland Security should “review granting Mrs. Ibrahim Significant Public Benefit Parole, asylum, or refugee status, as appropriate.” They also requested that the State Department expedite the process of registering Martin and Maya as United States citizens.

Now that Meriam is free, the time has come for the Khartoum regime to sense that the State Department “is serious.” The U.S. government must enable Meriam and Daniel and their children to get swiftly and safely to the United States, and then they should show Khartoum they are serious about all the rest of the starfish on the beach.

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