Two South Sudanese pastors are being held in Omdurman prison in Khartoum and could face the death penalty. Their trial started May 19.
World Watch Monitor reported in February that Yat Michael and Peter Yen (also named as David Yein Reith in some reports) were being held in unknown locations after they were arrested during separate visits to Khartoum from their homes in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011. On May 4, they were each charged with a series of offences, two of which—undermining the constitutional system and waging war against the state—carry potential sentences of the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted.
Michael was taken into custody on December 21 after preaching the Sunday morning sermon for the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) Khartoum Bahri congregation. After the service, several men who identified themselves as officers from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) approached Michael anddemanded that he go with them, taking him away without further explanation. The next day, security forces went to Michael’s temporary home and took some of his clothes and personal belongings. They told his wife that he was being held in relation to an ongoing investigation, but did not reveal any further details regarding the nature of the charges or whether he was under arrest.
Michael and his wife had gone to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to seek medical attention for their child, but he had been asked to preach at a church during their visit, sources told World Watch Monitor.
Yen was arrested on January 11 after delivering a letter to the Religious Affairs Office in Khartoum asking about his colleague Michael’s arrest in December. Both men belong to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.
The lawyer representing the two men initially believed the charges against them would be dropped, but the involvement of the NISS may produce a different outcome. Nahmia Shaloka, a Sudanese lawyer who left the country because of his human rights activity and now lives in the United States, said the NISS legal counsel will try to create a connection between Michael’s speech at the church and the charges filed against them. “For me, there is no evidence,” Shaloka said. “So far the whole thing is to give their [the NISS] action legal justification. The NISS claims to have evidence, and this will be clear at the hearing on May 19.”
According to Amnesty International, the NISS is an agency that is essentially above the law. Priscilla Nyagoah, a campaigner for Sudan and South Sudan at Amnesty International’s regional office in east Africa, said in a recent blog that the Sudanese parliament amended its constitution in January to extend NISS’ mandate to include activities currently carried out by the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, adding that the amendment doesn’t require the agency to abide by relevant international, regional and domestic law. “Conferring an intelligence agency such as the NISS with such a mandate, in addition to its already extensive powers of arrest, detention, search and seizure under the National Security Service Act, is particularly alarming,” Nyagoah wrote.
At the continuation of their trial, Michael and Yen were to stand trial on charges of disclosure and receipt of official information or documents, arousing feelings of discontent among regular forces, breach of public peace, and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs. They were also to answer charges of undermining the constitutional system and waging war against the state, which carry the possibility of capital punishment.
The church in Khartoum that Michael preached at prior to his arrest has suffered pressure from government authorities over land rights, resulting in most of the church being destroyed in December of last year.
While South Sudan has a largely Christian population, Sudan is predominantly Muslim. However, the thousands of Southern Sudanese who fled to the north during the long civil war are now so rooted there that they choose to remain. Churches still remain in the north to meet their needs, although some have come under pressure in recent months.
Sudan’s Minister of Religion, Shalil Abdullah, has said that the authorities would not issue permits for the construction of new churches.
Father, we pray for Yatand Peter and for their families. We pray for hope and courage and for justice to prevail. As pressure increases on Your church in Sudan, we pray for their faith to be strengthened and for the presence of Your Holy Spirit in them to be apparent. And we pray for the people of Sudan to be released from the grip of spiritual darkness, to see the light of Christ and turn in faith. We pray in the Name of Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life, the only way to the Father in heaven, Amen.