Friday, 19 June 2015

The Meriam Ibrahim Case: A General Overview

The Chronology of Events

free Meriam
Image Source:

Sudan Flag
Image Source:
May 2014
On 11 May 2014, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim was found guilty by the Al-Haj Yousif Criminal Court of charges under the Sudanese Penal Code (1991), Articles 126 for the crime of ridda (apostasy from Islam) and article 146 for the crime of zena (unlawful intercourse in the act of adultery).  The Penal Code, Article 126, states:
(1) Every Muslim who advocates the renunciation of the creed of Islam, or who publicly declares his renouncement thereof by an express statement or conclusive act, shall be deemed to commit the offence of apostasy.
(2) Whoever commits apostasy shall be given a chance to repent during a period to be determined by the court; if he persists in his apostasy, and is not a recent convert to Islam, he shall be punished with death.
(3) The penalty provided for apostasy shall be remitted whenever the apostate recants his apostasy before execution.
The Penal Code, article 146 states:
Whoever commits the offence of adultery (zena) shall be punished with:
a) execution by stoning when the offender is married;
b) One hundred lashes of the whip when the offender is not married;
c) The male non-married offender may be punished, in addition to whipping, with expatriation for one year".
Her husband, Daniel Wani, a US citizen, was not found guilty, but Mrs Ibrahim was sentenced to 100 lashes for the zena crime and death by hanging for the ridda crime. These are Shari’a Hudud punishments. She was detained in the Omdurman’s Women’s Prison, with her 20 month old son, Martin Wani, and on 27 May, whilst shackled, she gave birth to a daughter, Maya Wani.

On 22 May, Mrs Ibrahim’s lawyers filed in the Sudanese Court of Appeal, in the Khartoum North and Sharg-el-nil Criminal Circuit, and claimed that the lower court had made errors in both procedure and merit. It was argued in the defence petition that the court made a procedural error in that it did not have jurisdiction to hold the marriage null and void, and that the Personal Status of Muslims Code 1991 contained no conclusive provision banning such marriage (Christian and Christian, see below). Further, Article 61 of the Code establishes that, “a void marriage does not yield any consequence of marriage,” and yet, it was argued, “this judgment has impacted directly on the Appellant, her child and her [then] unborn baby.”

As to the merits, after stating that there is “no compulsion in religion” (Surat Al-Baqara, verse 256), the defence brief identified that Mrs Ibrahim had been a Christian who attended Khartoum Catholic Church, and met her husband whilst a practising Christian. Her marriage was conducted in public at the church on 19 December 2011, and the authorities only became aware of the Ibrahim family in September 2013 when a man claiming to be her brother, informed the authorities that she had married a Christian and that she had committed adultery. It was the misrepresented position of her personal faith and beliefs that set in motion the horrific events that followed.

Mrs. Ibrahim’s lawyers, along with the NGOs, Redress, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the Sudanese Organization for Development and Rehabilitation, the Sudanese Human Rights Initiative and the Justice Center for Advocacy and Legal Consultancy, submitted a Complaint on 2 June 2014, with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As the African Commission did not provide a public pronouncement on the case, the defence filed an Urgent Appeal on 10 June, with the Special Rapporteur on Women’s Rights, Soyata Maiga. It was claimed that Sudan had violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“ACHPR”).

Image Source:
In essence, the claims were that Mrs Ibrahim suffered gender and religious discrimination under ACHPR, Articles 2 and 3, which states:
Article 2: Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any  other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status.
Article 3 (1) Every individual shall be equal before the law, (2) Every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law
It was claimed that Meriam and her family suffered torture and ill-treatment under Article 5, which states:
Article 5: Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to  the recognition of his legal status. All forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited. 
That her right to liberty and security of the person had been violated under Article 6, which states:
Article 6: Every individual shall have the right to liberty and to the security of his person. No one may be deprived of his freedom except for reasons and conditions previously laid down by law. In particular, no one may be arbitrarily arrested or detained.
Her right to a fair trial had been violated under Article 7, which states:
Article 7: (1) Every individual shall have the right to have his cause heard. This comprises:
a. The right to an appeal to competent national organs against acts of violating his fundamental rights as recognized and guaranteed by conventions, laws, regulations and customs in force;
b. The right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent court or tribunal;
c. The right to defence, including the right to be defended by counsel of his choice;
d. The right to be tried within a reasonable time by an impartial court or tribunal.
(2) No one may be condemned for an act or omission which did not constitute a legally punishable offence at the time it was committed. No penalty may be inflicted for an  offence for which no provision was made at the time it was committed. Punishment is personal and can be imposed only on the offender.
It was claimed that her freedom of conscience and religion was violated under Article 8, which states:
Article 8: Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms. 
Furthermore, her children’s rights were violated, contrary to Article 18(1), which states:
Article 18: (1) The family shall be the  natural unit and basis of society. It shall be protected by the State  which shall take care of its physical health and moral.
(2) The State shall have the duty to assist the family which is the custodian of morals and traditional values recognized by the community.
(3) The State shall ensure the  elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.
(4) The aged and the disabled shall also have the right to special measures of protection in keeping with their physical or moral needs.

As these appeals were pending, there was an immense global outcry by politicians and civil society, and on 31 May, Abdullahi Alazreg, Under-Secretary of the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, appeared to speak out of turn as he indicated that Mrs Ibrahim would be released. However, the domestic courts, and the African Commission, were still considering the case and so this statement was premature.

Meriam and family
Image Source: Alumni Elshareef Mohammed
June 2014
Then on 22 June, the Court of Appeal, Khartoum North and Sharg-el-nil Criminal Circuit, quashed the 11 May Al-Haj Yousif Criminal Court sentence, and so Meruiam and her family were free to leave Sudan. Following her release from prison on 23 June, Meriam, her husband, Daniel Wadi, and their two children sought refuge in the US Embassy in Khartoum. On 24 June, she obtained an official visa and the family attempted to fly to the United States, but were detained by the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) at Khartoum airport. Meriam was charged with falsifying a South Sudan emergency travel document. If convicted she faced a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Free Meriam Collage
Image Source: Miss Emily Clarke -
The global media campaign intensified. On twitter and facebook, “#savemeriam” and “#freemeriam” were “trending.” There were many “Free Meriam” campaigns initiated, including by Amnesty International and Emily Clarke’s petition, which both gained over 1 million signatures.
This significant civil society pressure helped strengthen political diplomacy. Many individual governments spoke out against the initial sentence and her re-arrest. For example, Mark Simmonds, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, called for Sudan to respect Meriam’s human rights. Then the FCO and the British Embassy in Khartoum closely monitored the situation and provided advice to Meriam’s lawyers.

July 2014
In the United Nations, Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced the UN’s, “deep concern about the situation of Meriam Ibrahim.” In the EU, following the EU Presidency’s of the Parliament, Council and Commission, expressed their “deepest dismay,” at Meriam’s inhumane treatment, the EU’s European External Action Service raised Meriam’s plight in the UN Human Rights Council. The European Parliament then adopted a resolution on the case on 17 July.

During the bilateral and multilateral initiatives, Lapo Pistelli, the Italian Deputy Foreign Minister visited the region, and it is now clear that the Italian government performed a very significant role in the subsequent quashing of the charges, the family obtaining new visas and flying out of Khartoum late on Wednesday 23 July. Their plane landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport on Thursday 24 July, and the Ibrahim-Wadi family had a meeting with Pope Francis at his Santa Marta residence.

Mr Lapo Pistelli told Vatican Radio’s Susy Hodges, that the dialogue with the political authorities in Khartoum had been very fair and that President al-Bashir had stated Sudan had to, “rethink the Constitution and the Penal Code, and it is highly likely that the issue of apostasy will be modified and deleted.”

Susy Hodges asked, “Presumably…we have to thank the international outcry that broke out after the death sentence?” Pistelli answered, “Yes…the international attention given by the media has helped all the efforts of the international community or the American government or the Italian government, to be successful.”

August 2014
On 1 August, Meriam and her family arrived in New Hampshire to begin a new life, and whilst welcoming her on a brief stopover in Philadelphia, Mayor, Michael Nutter, described her as a ‘world freedom fighter.’”

This case, and the international exposure it has received, has demonstrated that there are serious questions concerning women’s rights, religious freedom, the protection of the family, and the welfare of children, which the government of Sudan must address. If there is not legislative change to remedy these deficiencies, it is hoped that the lower courts in Sudan will adhere to this Court of Appeal decision and protect others from the horrific treatment which the Ibrahim-Wani family has recently endured.

Furthermore, this human rights success story cannot be attributed to one fora of power or one single discourse. It is the weaving together of legal activism, political diplomacy and a unified civil society voice.

The global support for Meriam’s lawyers, the personal safety of the family provided by the US Embassy, the regional, and governmental diplomacy, with the important role of Italy, all came together to ensure that further gross human rights violations did not befall the Ibrahim-Wadi family in Sudan.