Espionage Charges Against South Sudanese Pastors Facing Death Penalty Are Baseless, Says Prominent Witness

South Sudanese Christians living in the North gather to attend Christmas day celebrations at a Catholic church in the Umbada locality of Omdurman, December 25, 2013. |

Evidence produced by the prosecution proves that espionage and other charges against two South Sudanese pastors facing the death penalty have no basis, a prominent witness told a court in Khartoum, Sudan, as the defense team closed the case.

Ex-army general and 2010 presidential candidate Abdul Aziz Khalid testified that the evidence presented by the prosecution was not classified, and therefore the security and espionage charges against the pastors were without basis, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide USA.

Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services charged pastors Yat Michael and Peter Reith, both from the Presbyterian Evangelical Church from the seceded nation of South Sudan, with at least six crimes including undermining the constitutional system, espionage, promoting hatred amongst sects, breach of public peace and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs.

Undermining the constitutional system and espionage carry the death penalty or life imprisonment.

"We ... renew our call for these unwarranted and extreme charges to be dropped and for Rev. Yat Michael and Rev. Peter Reith to be released unconditionally and without further delay," Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said.

The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, when the judge will hear closing statements. The verdict is expected on Aug. 5.

The pastors were denied access to their legal team before the hearing, despite an earlier direction from the judge that they would be allowed 15 minutes with their lawyers, the Christian group said.

"Despite repeated requests to the court and prison service, neither the pastors' legal team nor their families have been given permission to visit them in Kober Prison," it said.

This denial is in violation of fair trial principles, as articulated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sudan is a party, Thomas said.

"The denial of family visits is a further measure to increase their mental and emotional distress; a cruel and unjust action on the part of the State," he added. "We urge the African Union in particular, and the wider international community, to challenge Sudan on its treatment of the pastors and its failure to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief and the right to a fair trial."

Pastor Michael was arrested last December from the city of Omdurman in Sudan, after he preached on a Sunday. Pastor Reith was arrested in January, after he wrote a letter to the government's Office of Religious Affairs in Khartoum about the arrest of Michael.

The Islamist government in Khartoum is known for persecuting minorities.

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