She fell in love with a Christian man and when she married him, converted to Christianity. That is all.
But because religious conservatives in the Sudan believe that attempting to give up your Muslim faith is a crime, this 27-year-old woman, who has a young child in prison with her and is pregnant with her second child, is now facing a death sentence.
Her name is Meriam Yehya Ibrahim and she has become the face of Sudan’s war on religious converts.
Ibrahim was born to a Sudanese Muslim father and a mother who practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. When her father left when she was just six, her mother raised her as a Christian. Ibrahim has always identified as a Christian. She later married her Christian husband, Daniel Wani, despite her family’s protestations. As a result, her brother, who is a devout Muslim, launched a case with the Halat Kiki Court of Khartoum, saying she had committed adultery under article 146 of the Sudan Criminal Code.
The basis for this is his contention that her father was a Muslim and therefore so is she. As a result, her marriage is invalid. The courts agreed with this line, and that her sexual contact outside of a recognized marriage constitutes an act of adultery. This was enough to earn her 100 lashes to be administered after her second child is born.
To add to this misery, though, the court later determined that Wani, her husband, had committed an act of proselytization and tried to convert Ibrahim. Rather than charge Wani with anything, the blame fell on Ibrahim (because the Court has power over Muslims) and she was then given the death penalty for apostasy.
The court told her she would have time to recant. She could, they said, reaffirm herself as a Muslim. She refused to do so, reportedly telling the court, “I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian.”
The court labelled Ibrahim’s case a “dangerous crime” against the Islamic community. Meanwhile her husband, Wani, has officially been considered innocent but, as the police have refused him nearly all access to Ibrahim and his 20 month old son, who is in prison with Ibrahim because Wani as a Christian is forbidden from being his sole carer, is suffering also. The situation is even more injurious because Wani is wheelchair-bound and had depended on Ibrahim to fulfill basic daily tasks of self-care. Still, Wani appears focused on the welfare of his wife and their children.
“Martin [his son] and my wife, they are all in prison and she is pregnant,” he is quoted as saying. “She could give birth at any time, from today to 1st of June, she may give birth. I am afraid that being in prison is dangerous for her so if they would allow me to take her to the hospital that she delivered Martin in — even if it was under the watch of security guards, I would be thankful.”
In previous cases, the Sharia courts have at least given mothers time to care for their young children before the death penalty could move forward, but it’s unclear if that will happen in this case. Ibrahim’s lawyers are appealing to the higher courts, but so far have met with little compassion. Even their appeal to have Ibrahim moved to a specialist hospital because of her pregnancy, which is proving to be a difficult one, has been turned down.
Ibrahim’s husband Wani became a US citizen around five years ago and hoped to bring his wife and children to America in order to give them what he classed as a better life. He has appealed to the American embassy to intervene, but so far his wishes have gone unanswered. The United States has, however, issued a brief comment that it is in talks with the Sudan government about this issue, which it has labelled “deeply disturbing.”
The United Nations has issued a statement saying it is appalled by the Sudan’s use of the death penalty. While highlighting that no one has actually been killed under the death penalty for apostasy since that provision was brought into force (in its current form) in 1991, the UN says it remains extremely concerned about this case:
“Choosing and/or changing one’s religion is not a crime at all. On the contrary, it is a basic human right,” a spokesperson is quoted as saying. “The imposition and enforcement of the death penalty on pregnant women or recent mothers is inherently cruel and leads to a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The case will now progress toward the Constitutional Court and seems set to provide one of the first major challenges where Sharia will come up against the country’s human rights and freedom of religion commitments as spelled out by Sudan’s own Constitution and various international human rights standards.
It would be remiss not to note that Sudan is not unique in applying the death penalty to apostasy, with a number of Sharia dominated countries like Saudi Arabia also proscribing death for those who dare to either change from their Muslim faith or reject it outright.
However, in taking such overtly inhumane action against a pregnant mother, the Sudan has exposed itself to international condemnation and an awful yet rather unique opportunity for action to strike at the law.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.