JUBA, South Sudan (Morning Star News) – A judge in Sudan on Sunday (Jan. 29) sentenced Czech aid worker Petr Jasek to life in prison and two other Christians to prison terms of 12 years on charges related to “espionage,” a defense attorney said.
“Petr Jasek was imprisoned for life,” attorney Muhanad Nur told Morning Star News.
Along with the life sentence for espionage and waging war against the state, Jasek was also sentenced to six months in prison for spreading false rumors undermining the authority of the state (“spreading false news aimed at tarnishing the image of Sudan”) and a fine of 100,000 Sudanese pounds (US$16,000) for working for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Sudan without a permit. He was also sentenced to one year in prison each for inciting strife between communities, entry in and photography of military areas and equipment and illegal entry into Sudan.
In Prague, the Czech Foreign Ministry said the verdict was without basis, according to The AP. It reported that a deputy foreign minister will travel to Sudan to try to negotiate Jasek’s release, and that the foreign minister is prepared to go also if necessary. The Foreign Ministry said Jasek was in Sudan only to help Christians.
Also on Sunday, the court in Khartoum convicted Hassan Abdelrahim Tawor and Abdulmonem Abdumawla of Darfur for assisting Jasek in the alleged espionage, causing hatred among communities and spreading false information, Nur said. They received 10-year sentences for espionage-related charges, and two years of prison for “inciting hatred between sects” and “propagation of false news.” The sentences are to be served consecutively.
Nur said he had no comment on the verdict, but that defense attorneys planned to file an appeal.
Pastor Tawor of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) was arrested from his home on Dec. 18, 2015, as was Kwa (also transliterated Kuwa) Shamaal, head of Missions of the SCOC. Pastor Shamaal was acquitted on Jan. 2 of charges ranging from spying to inciting hatred against the government.
Abdumawla was arrested in December 2015 after he began collecting money to help a friend, Ali Omer, who had needed treatment for burns suffered in a student demonstration. Abdumawla contacted Pastor Tawor, who donated money for Omer’s treatment, which reportedly raised the ire of Sudanese authorities.
Authorities also were said to have found Jasek also had given money for Omer’s medical costs, but prosecutors accused Jasek of donating it to rebel groups.
Prosecutors had charged Jasek, also arrested in December 2015, with “tarnishing Sudan’s image” by documenting persecution. At one hearing, an official with Sudan’s notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) accused the defendants of conducting “hostile activities against the state that threaten the national and social security” in Sudan.
A Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) press statement asserted that the case “further illustrates the politicization of the criminal justice system by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) which, under the pretext of investigating national security crimes, has brought charges against members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and leaders of minority religions, as occurred in the case of Yat Michael and Peter Reith in 2015.”
CSW Advocacy Director Joel Edwards said the serious charges against the three men were unwarranted and the excessive sentences unjustified, given the paucity of evidence against them.
“Mr. Jasek, Mr. Abduraheem and Mr. Abdumawla are not spies; they were simply driven by compassion to source finance for the medical treatment of a man whose injuries are so severe that he requires ongoing medical care,” Edwards said in a press statement. “We call for the annulment of the verdict and the immediate release of these three men. In addition, we urge the Sudanese authorities once again to undertake a review of the sweeping powers exercised by the NISS and to end the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities.”
Advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), which confirmed the life sentence for Jasek, also reported that four churches are threatened with demolition in Sudan.
“A court ruled that the authorities must supply the lawyer for the churches with an official order for the demolition of the churches,” MEC reported in a press statement. “To the lawyer’s dismay, the official decision does not just involve the four churches he was representing, but also applies to another 21 places of worship (most of them churches) that are scheduled for demolition.”
The organization requested prayer that the three convicted Christians will know the Lord’s strength and comfort during their ordeal; for wisdom for the lawyers defending them; for a fair appeal process, and that the three men will be acquitted soon; for an end to the increasing pressure against churches and other religious minorities in Sudan, and that Christians will know the peace of the Lord; and that all officials involved will love mercy, act justly, learn about Jesus and choose to follow Him.
Foreign diplomats and international rights activists took notice of the case after Morning Star News broke the story of the arrest of two pastors in December 2015. Their arrest was seen as part of a recent upsurge in harassment of Christians.
Most SCOC members have roots among the ethnic Nuba in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan’s South Kordofan state, where the government is fighting an insurgency. The Nuba along with other Christians in Sudan face discrimination, as President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to introduce a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and Arabic language.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011. The Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced in April 2013 that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.
Sudan since 2012 has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings on the pretext that they belonged to South Sudanese. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians.
Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, shortly before the secession of South Sudan the following month, the government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.
The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir in connection with war crimes in Darfur. Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the country remain on the list in its 2016 report.
Sudan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of countries where Christians face most persecution.