A Sudanese court has ruled that there is enough evidence to move forward with the trial of two imprisoned South Sudanese Presbyterian pastors facing "trumped-up" espionage charges, which are punishable by death. The pastors' attorney will have only two weeks to prove their innocence without access to his clients.
In the sixth hearing in the case against pastors Yat Michael and Peter Reith in Khartoum, a judge ruled Thursday that there is sufficient evidence to "charge" the pastors with seven different crimes including criminal conspiracy, espionage, promoting hatred amongst the sects, blasphemy, undermining the constitutional system, obtaining official documents and disturbing the peace — two of which could be punishable by death.
According to the American Center for Law and Justice, the judge's Thursday ruling now means that the pressure is on the pastors' attorney, Mohaned Mustafa, to now prove the innocence of his two clients rather than their guilt having to be proven.
Despite the magnitude of the charges facing the pastors, who have been imprisoned for over six months, the court has given Mustafa less than two weeks to make the defense on July 14. Additionally, Mustafa will likely not have access to speak with his clients to help him prepare for the defense, as prison officials at Kober Prison have unconstitutionally disallowed visitation rights to the pastors.
ACLJ reports that the judge initially tried to give Mustafa about 15 minutes to prepare the defense, but Mustafa argued successfully that 15 minutes was an inadequate amount of time to prepare a defense for crimes that can result in the death penalty.
Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of the human rights monitoring group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said in a statement that the visiting restrictions placed on the pastors, their attorneys and families are hindering the pastors from receiving a fair trial.
"We are disappointed to learn that the judge has decided to uphold the extreme and unwarranted charges against Rev. Michael and Rev. Reith. We continue to call for their immediate and unconditional release," Thomas asserted. "The ongoing restrictions on their legal and family visits are not only distressing for the pastors and their families, but also constitute yet another hurdle for their legal team to overcome and a violation of fair trial principles, as articulated by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sudan is a party."
Although the prisoners have been prevented from visiting their families and attorneys since being transferred to Kober Prison last month, a judge granted them the right to visit with their families for 10 minutes last Thursday, according to Radio Tamazuj.
Faith McDonnell from the U.S.-based Institute of Religion & Democracy told The Christian Post that the prosecution brought in a new witness to testify against the men during last Thursday's hearing, even though the government still had no new evidence to present.
"There has been at least six hearings, four in June, two in May, and they have been trying to build a case against them. As of the last hearing on June 25, they brought in another witness but there was no new evidence," McDonnell stated. "They are really just beating the bushes trying to find evidence against these guys and to charge them with espionage and promoting hate between among the sects."