Rev. Yat Michael and Rev. Peter Reith, South Sudanese clergymen from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SSEPC), were brought before Khartoum Bahri Criminal Court in Khartoum, Sudan on 4 May.
During the hearing the clergymen were charged jointly with undermining the constitutional system (Article 50 of the Sudanese Penal Code); waging war against the state (Article 51); disclosure and receipt of official information or documents (Article 55); arousing feelings of discontent among regular forces (Article 62); breach of public peace (Article 69); and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs (Article125). Of the five charges, Articles 50 and 51 carry the death penalty or life imprisonment in the event of a guilty verdict.
A subsequent hearing was set for 14 May.
Rev. Yat Michael has been in detention since 14 December 2014, while Rev. Peter Reith has been detained since 11 January 2015. Both were held by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) without charge or access to a lawyer or their families until 1 March 2015, when they were transferred to the custody of the Attorney General. Whilst in the Attorney General’s custody the two men were given access to legal representation and family visits.
Rev Yat Michael was arrested shortly after making a speech at the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC) Khartoum Bahri congregation. The church has been in a land dispute with private investors who are being supported by the government. At the time of his arrest, NISS agents reportedly stated that they were offended by Rev Michael’s speech encouraging the church to continue standing firm through the trials they were experiencing.
The Sudanese authorities have also attempted to illegally sell other properties belonging to the SEPC. In December 2014, lawyers lodged a constitutional appeal after the Ministry of Justice issued a one week eviction notice to the church’s tenants. The chairman of the SEPC council responsible for church buildings and land, Rafat Obid, has faced a campaign of harassment by the NISS as a result of his work on the committee.
The severe charges levelled against Rev. Michael and Rev Reith are the latest development in a series of repressive official actions targeting Christians in Sudan.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “We are gravely concerned by the initiation of a criminal case against Rev Michael and Rev Reith. It is unacceptable that after enduring extended detention without charge, these men now face extreme and unwarranted charges, some of which could entail the death penalty or life imprisonment. The levelling of such serious charges is an indication that the Sudanese authorities intend to continue restricting the rights of religious minorities in Sudan. We call upon the recently elected government to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief, as guaranteed by the Sudanese constitution and Sudan’s international human rights obligations, and to guarantee enjoyment of that right without discrimination. We also urge the international community, in particular the African Union, to hold Sudan accountable for its obligation to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief for all within its borders, and for ensuring justice for the two clergymen."