Two South Sudanese pastors on trial in Sudan for several serious charges, including “spying,” have been freed by Ahmed Ghaboush, the Judge of Khartoum North Central Court. Had they been found guilty, the pastors could have faced the death penalty.
Yat Michael had taken his child to Khartoum for medical treatment when he was arrested on Dec. 14, 2014 after preaching at a local church during his stay in Sudan. Peter Yen was arrested in January 2015 when he went to enquire about Michael’s whereabouts. The two men were then reported as missing until Sudanese authorities revealed that they were being held in prison for “crimes against the state.”
The DPA German news agency reports the judge found Yat Michael guilty of “breach of the peace” (Article 69) and Peter Yen (also known as David Reith) guilty of “managing a criminal or terrorist organization” (Article 65). But he ordered both released, as they had already served the sentences for these offenses by their eight-month term in prison.
Dr. David Curry, President/CEO of Open Doors USA, commented on the good news of the pastors’ release: “I am grateful and encouraged to hear news about the release of Pastor Michael and Pastor Yen. The worldwide prayers of many Christians have been answered.
“Our hope is that freedom of religious expression will become a part of Sudanese policy so that Christians and others may practice their faith in peace. Unfortunately, Christians in Sudan are currently not free to express their faith.”
Experts said there were fears that they would have been convicted of the more serious charges; it was felt the judge was under pressure to balance local expectations on him to uphold the principles of the Sharia-governed state, with adherence to international human rights standards.
The families told Radio Tamazuj, an online independent news service broadcast in Sudan and South Sudan, that they were “delighted.”
The last time the men were in court was July 23 when their legal team submitted their written closing arguments.
Observers from a number of foreign embassies were present that day. An official from the Sudanese Ministry of Justice told one of the pastors’ lawyers that the extent of outside interest had led the government to take a very close interest in the case.
Thabith Al Zubir, one of the lawyers defending the pastors, had asked the judge to drop the case because the defense had refuted all the accusations against the two men, and because there was no clear evidence against them.
The defense lawyers had also argued that their clients were arrested illegally by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
They said Pastor Yat Michael did not violate Sudan’s law when he preached in Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church on Dec. 14 because he was just carrying out his duty as a pastor.
“To urge believers to be zealous for their church is not an insult against God” one lawyer said, referring to NISS arresting Yat Michael after his sermon in the church in the Bahri area, just north of the Sudanese capital.
“Justice requires that you don’t judge simply because you suspect, without any concrete evidence,” the lawyer said.
In addition, the lawyers raised concern over the fact that Yat Michael and Peter Yen were being tried illegally for insulting religion.
Sudan is ranked #6 on the Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians. Islam is well rooted in the Sudanese society. The overwhelming majority of the population in Sudan is Sunni Muslim, and Sharia law is the foundation of Sudan’s legal system. The regime is authoritarian and wants to control all aspects of the lives of its citizens. Blasphemy laws are used country-wide to persecute and prosecute Christians. Apostasy is criminalized, punishable by the death penalty. The arrest, incarceration and extended trial of pastors Michael and Yen illustrate the pressure Christians face in this region.
World Watch Monitor contributed to this report.
Compiled by Jerry Dykstra. For media inquiries, contact Christine Cape at 404-545-0085 or Christy Lynn Wilson at 770-401-9842.