South Sudanese pastors facing death penalty freed

Two South Sudanese pastors facing trial for espionage in Sudan have been freed.

Rev Yat Michael and Rev Peter Reith (also named as David Yein Reith in some reports) were being held on six charges including espionage, "offending Islamic beliefs", promoting hatred amongst sects and undermining the constitutional system. If found guilty, they could have faced the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which has been supporting the pastors, today confirmed their release.

Michael was arrested on December 14, 2014, and Reith in January of this year. They were both detained without charges, and without access to a lawyer or their families, until March 1. Ahead of their hearings, they were consistently denied access to their legal team, despite guarantees under Sudanese law.

During the final hearing in Khartoum, the defence team presented two witnesses. Ex-army general and 2010 presidential candidate Abdul Aziz Khalid testified that the charges of security and espionage were without basis, and told the court that evidence presented by the prosecution was available to the public. Both Michael and Reith maintained their innocence.

During today's hearing, CSW reports that Michael was convicted of inciting hatred and Reith of breaching public peace, but both released on time already served. Following the judgement, Michael said: "I am feeling free because I was in jail for many months. I have become like I'm born again."

The pastors' situation previously prompted international calls for their release from human rights groups including Amnesty International. CSW branded the charges "unwarranted and extreme", accusing Sudanese authorities of violating fair trial principles and "making a mockery of the judicial process".

Today, CSW's chief executive Mervyn Thomas said the organisation is "overjoyed" at the verdict, but urged Sudan to uphold its constitutional guarentees of religious liberty.

According to the US Commision on International Religious Freedom, the Sudanese government "continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief." Designated by the Commission as a 'country of particular concern' since 1999, Sudan's population is over 97 per cent Muslim, and the country's criminal code restricts religious freedom for all citizens. It also imposes Shariah Law on Muslims and Christians, allowing the death penalty for apostasy, stoning for adultery and prison sentences for blasphemy.

The USCIRF's 2015 report also notes the use of government policies and societal pressure to promote conversion to Islam. It is "impossible" to obtain permission to build churches, while their destruction has increased over the past four years.