JUBA, South Sudan (Morning Star News) – A court hearing yesterday in Khartoum for two South Sudanese pastors facing the death penalty was extended to today, then adjourned until June 15 to give prosecutors more time to try building a case, a defense attorney said.
Prosecutors need more time to search for evidence in the trial of the Rev. Yat Michael and the Rev. Peter Yein Reith, the attorney said. After encouraging a north Khartoum church embroiled in a land dispute with the government, the South Sudanese two pastors were charged with undermining Sudan’s constitutional system (Article 50 of the Sudanese Penal Code) and spying (Article 53) – offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment – and waging war against the state (Article 51), which calls for the death penalty.
“There is no evidence in the charges brought against the church leaders,” the attorney said.
A representative for Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) testified that the pastors were collecting information for a human rights group, citing as evidence a map of Sudan, especially the Darfur Region, that was found on their personal computers, the attorney said.
“But anybody can go to the Internet and download a map of country in the world,” he said. “It is not a crime.”
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).
The defense attorney said the judge indicated the prosecution needed more time to prepare their case.
“The judge said, ‘It is a process, normally a case is not ruled on in one day – it takes at least 10 days for one case,’” he said.
A previous hearing on May 19 also yielded no solid evidence against the pastors, he added.
The attorney noted that, oddly, the investigator was not at the court hearing today because he was travelling. The pastors were returned to an Omdurman prison after the hearing.
A relative of one of the pastors expressed hope.
“According to the attorney, there is hope that they will be released,” the family member said.
Michael, 49, was arrested on Dec. 14, 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.
At the May 19 hearing, prosecutors reportedly showed a video of Michael’s talk at the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church. NISS agents reportedly said they took offense at Michael appealing for the church to stand firm in spite of arrests of church members and demolitions of their property.
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.
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.
NISS officials have demanded $12,000 from the SSPEC secretary general, the Rev. Philip Akway Obang, for the release of the pastors, sources said. A NISS officer who identified himself only as Jamal has confirmed to Morning Star News that the agency had demanded that the pastors pay $6,000 each for the charges to be dropped.
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.
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