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Conflicting reports on death row woman reflect Sudan 'confusion'

04 June 2014, 08:04

Khartoum - Conflicting comments by Sudanese officials over whether a Christian woman sentenced to hang for apostasy will be freed reflect confusion within the Islamist government, hit by international outrage over the verdict, analysts say.

Khartoum is torn between hardline Islamists, who demand the execution of the 27-year-old mother of two, who just gave birth to a daughter in prison, and foreign pressure to free her, Sudanese analyst Khaled al-Tijani al-Nur says.

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, who was born to a Muslim father, was sentenced to death on May 15 under the Islamic sharia law that has been in place since 1983, and which outlaws conversions under pain of death.

Ishag was raised an Orthodox Christian, her mother's religion, married a Christian man originally from South Sudan and already had a 20-month-old son before she gave birth last week.

She denied ever committing apostasy.

Her judge showed no mercy, also sentencing her to 100 lashes for adultery, as marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is considered adulterous under Sudan's interpretation of sharia law.

Diplomatic mine field

On Saturday, Abdullah al-Azraq, a foreign ministry undersecretary, told AFP and other media during a visit to London that Ishag would be "freed within days in line with legal procedure that will be taken by the judiciary and the ministry of justice."

But the following day, Sudan's foreign ministry denied that she would be freed soon. It said quotes attributed to Azraq had been taken out of context and that Ishag's release depended on whether a court accepted an appeal request by her defence team.

Nur attributes the about-turn to the "confusion" that typifies the government's policies and reflects the country's diplomatic strategy.

"At the foreign ministry, they operate as if they were in a mine field... where explosions lead to a change of mind," Nur said.

"Some religious extremist groups are exerting pressure on the government in the case of Meriam Ishag."

But when foreign pressure started to grow, the government wanted to resolve the problem by freeing the woman, he added.

A government source supported his interpretation of what happened.

"Some in the government had decided to resolve the matter after the strong international reactions. But the leaks to the media (of this initiative) showed that the government interferes in the decisions of the judiciary," said the source, who requested anonymity.

"The ministry then wanted to stop it (under pressure from) internal forces who were angered" by the announcement of Ishag's imminent release.

A former Sudanese diplomat, Rachid Abu Shama, said these contradictions were explained by "the state's political confusion, which results in these equally confused declarations, to the point where some officials pronounce on a subject they are not responsible for."

"The foreign ministry undersecretary was abroad for health treatment," when he said that Ishag would be freed, "which the judiciary had not decided on."

 Awaiting appeal

After the foreign ministry officials' comments, Ishag's husband, Daniel Wani, told AFP he did not believe she would be freed.

"No one has contacted me and I don't think it will happen. We have submitted an appeal but they have not looked at it yet, so how is it that they will release her," asked Wani, a US citizen.

Ishag's lawyer Mohannad Mustapha also expressed doubts she would be released or that charges against her would be dropped.

"The only party who can do that is the appeals court but I am not sure that they have the full case file," he said on Saturday.

The court had given Ishag three days to "recant" her Christian faith, but she refused to do so.

Her case sparked international condemnation, with British Prime Minister David Cameron denouncing the "barbaric" sentence.

Amnesty International said Ishag was raised an Orthodox Christian by her mother because her Muslim father was absent, and called the sentence "abhorrent."

Sudan has paid heavily for the policies of its Islamist regime. In power since 1989, it has suffered diplomatic and economic isolation since the late 1990s when the United States imposed sanctions in retaliation for Khartoum offering refuge to militant Islamists.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was based in the country from 1991 to 1996.



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