A 27-year-old pregnant Christian woman in Sudan was sentenced to death by hanging on Thursday for the crime of apostasy — the act of renouncing one’s religion.
Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag was born to a Muslim father, but raised by her mother as an Orthodox Christian.
Religious conversion is banned under the 1991 penal code, which is based on a combination of both Islamic law and British common law. Islamic law was first introduced in the country in 1983.
During the trial, which was held in the Haj Yousef district of Khartoum, she was given three days to recant her religion. The sentence was issued after she refused to renounce her Christian faith.
"I am a Christian and I never committed apostasy,” Ishag told the judge after the ruling.
Ishag, who is eight months pregnant and resides in jail with her 20-month-old son, also received a punishment of 100 lashes for adultery, which is also illegal under the penal code.
A tenet of Islamic law bars Muslim women from marrying outside of their religion. Thus the Sudanese court deemed her marriage to a Christian man void and adulterous.
In past cases, the government has delayed executions until the mother has given birth and finished nursing. If the court proceeds with the death sentence it would be the first apostasy-linked execution since the penal code was implemented during the early years of President Omar al-Bashir’s reign.
“In all situations where there’s a level of lawlessness and a level of radical elements, women get to be the predominant victim,” Abdullahi An-Na’im, a Sudanese law professor at Emory University, told VICE News. “They’re seen as weaker, exposed and vulnerable.”
The case has brought outrage from the international community with reactions largely focusing on the verdict as an affront to religious freedom and women’s rights.
"The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is abhorrent and should never be even considered," Manar Idriss, a Sudan researcher with Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Many Western governments have expressed concern about the sentencing. The US Department of State called on Sudanese legal authorities to approach the case with compassion.
“We are deeply disturbed over the sentencing today of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag to death by hanging for apostasy,” the State Department officials said in a statement. “We continue to call upon the Government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion.”
Religious freedom is guaranteed in Sudan under the country’s 2005 interim constitution.
While the issue brings up concerns over religious freedom in Sudan and the use of Islamic law, experts like An-Na’im see this case as being a political tactic from hard-liners within the government trying to cling onto power.
“I think she’s just a pawn in the struggle for power, she’s really being used as a scapegoat by some right-wing elements,” An-Na'im said.
An-Na’im believes this is a case of an activist judge using the law to fight back against liberalization in Sudan.
He says these cases pop up now and again from radical pockets within the regime, often remnants of the 1990s, after al-Bashir came to power in 1989, and the enforcement of Islamic law was at its height.
Typically judges are encouraged not to take up these types of cases.
According to An-Na’im, the administration even tries to restrict the application of these laws, but they cannot always control ideologues within their party.
“As long as this statute still remains, the penal code still exists, you’ll always get from time to time someone who wants to do this,” An-Na’im said, noting that choosing such an extreme case of prosecuting a pregnant woman only helps in getting attention.
Mohamed Ghilan, a Sudanese neuroscience PhD candidate and a student of Islamic jurisprudence, told VICE News that he thinks the apostasy case is being used as a tactic to distract the public from more important problems, like the economy or the student protests that have been springing up in recent months.
“This is resurging for a reason,” Ghilan said. “Now everyone is focusing on this apostasy thing and Sharia law, and ignoring everything else going on in the country.”
Ghilan says religion is an easy way for the government to drum up support — when the public fears a threat to Islam they become less concerned about other issues like government corruption.
“People are rising up, they seem like they’re readying against Bashir and his party,” he said. “But if this distraction works, all the pressure on the government is misdirected away from them.”
Yet this approach could end up backfiring. An-Na'im said many people are outraged that a pregnant woman is being exploited.
There were reportedly around 50 demonstrators at Ishag’s hearing, holding signs protesting for religious freedom and against her death sentence. An-Na’im hopes the anger and attention surrounding the case will force the government to make much needed changes to the penal code.
“I’m sad this lady is being scapegoated, but hopefully something good will come out of it, an average person will see how morally indefensible these laws are,” he said.
Photo via Flickr