Death-row Sudanese Christian freed but fears for life: lawyer

Death-row Sudanese Christian freed but fears for life: lawyer
A handout picture taken on May 28, 2014, and released by the family on May 30, shows Daniel Wani, a US citizen originally from South Sudan, carrying his newborn daughter Maya at the womens prison in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman. There was an international outcry after Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag was condemned to hang for apostasy on May 15 under Islamic sharia law, which has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and outlaws conversions on pain of death.

KHARTOUM - A Sudanese Christian who gave birth in prison after being sentenced to hang for apostasy was freed Monday but immediately went into hiding, fearing for her life, a lawyer said.

Official media confirmed that an appeal court annulled the earlier verdict against Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, 26.

Her case sparked an outcry from Western governments and rights groups after a judge sentenced her to death on May 15.

Almost one million people appealed to save her life on the Change.org petition website.

"She is in a safe place. I will not tell you where," one of her lawyers, Mohanad Mustafa, told AFP.

"The main reason is that we are concerned about her life." Born to a Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother, Ishag was convicted under Islamic sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and outlaws conversions on pain of death.

Her lawyers appealed the verdict.

On Monday the higher court "issued a judgement on release of the prisoner Abrar Al-Hadi Mohamed Abdalla and dismissing the decree issued earlier by the first instance court," the official SUNA news agency reported, using her father's Muslim name.

Twelve days after the initial ruling, Ishag gave birth to a daughter at the women's prison in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman.

She had been shackled during pregnancy, Mustafa said.

Repeated attempts to reach her husband Daniel Wani on Monday were unsuccessful.

Mustafa said Wani has been reunited with his wife, newborn baby and the couple's 20-month-old son who had been incarcerated with his mother.

"Now she is with her husband and their children in the safe place," said the lawyer.

He and other members of Ishag's legal team have also received death threats.

'Threats and hate speech'

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said the group was delighted that "the unjust, inhumane and unwarranted sentences have been annulled".

But he said the British-based group, which works for religious freedom, was appalled at the "threats and hate speech".

"Her alleged brother has publicly stated the family would carry out the death sentence should the court acquit her," CSW said.

"Today's ruling is a small step to redressing the injustice done to Meriam," said Sarah Jackson, deputy director at Amnesty International.

Muslim extremist groups had lobbied the Islamist government over Ishag's case, prominent newspaper editor Khalid Tigani has said.

A Sudanese church source, who last week expressed optimism that she would be freed because of international pressure, said Ishag's release was "great" news.

Foreign pressure had nothing to do with her release, said Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid, a senior official in Sudan's ruling National Congress Party.

Muslim scholars have divergent opinions on the issue of changing religion, and "jurisprudence in Islam is very broad," allowing for a solution, he told AFP.

The United States welcomed the decision to free Ishag but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf urged Khartoum to repeal its draconian laws against religious conversion.

Ishag's husband Wani is a US citizen.

Ishag was born in eastern Sudan's Gedaref state on November 3, 1987, but her Sudanese Muslim father abandoned the family when Ishag was five, leaving her to be raised according to her mother's faith, an earlier statement from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum said.

"She has never been a Muslim in her life," said the statement which added she joined the Catholic church shortly before she married her Khartoum-born husband in December 2011.

The case against Ishag originated with "a group of men who claim to be Meriam's relatives" but who, in fact, she had never seen before, the archdiocese said.

The Ishag controversy was the latest problem facing Sudan, an impoverished nation battling rebellions in its west and south, while more than six million people need humanitarian aid.

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