KHARTOUM (Christian Examiner) – Two pastors of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (PEC) were acquitted in a Sudanese court Aug. 5 of charges they were spying for a foreign government, stoking religious and ethnic strife in the country, and waging war against the people of Sudan.
The judge in the case ordered the immediate release of Rev. Yat Michael and Rev. Peter Yen, both of whom have been detained by Sudan's secret police in Khartoum since the beginning of the year.
Michael was arrested after traveling from South Sudan for a church service in the Sudanese capital in December 2014. Yen was arrested while visiting Khartoum in January. He was summoned to the offices of the government's National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and there accused and imprisoned.
Both pastors were potentially facing the death penalty had they been convicted of the charges of spying. However, they were already suffering.
Reports surfaced after their arrests earlier this year that the men had been brutally beaten on multiple occasions and were being held in a secretive prison where family members and their attorneys were not allowed to visit them.
According to a Sudanese news source based in Paris, Western diplomats, journalists and family members were present for the verdict. Judge Ahmed Gabosh delivered the verdict and order the pastors' property returned – cell phones, iPads and laptops confiscated during their arrests.
The pastors' trial began May 4 when the two were formally charged with eight crimes. Now, even though the pastors have been cleared of the ominous charges of spying and stoking religious and tribal strife, Gabosh said Rev. Michael had disturbed the peace by speaking on issues important to the state at a church in Khartoum, without permission from the government.
Yen was convicted of running a "terrorist organization" after he admitted that he had received donations from a foreign source and spread the money around Sudan. According to sources inside Sudan, the judge said the months the pastors had already served in prison were sufficient punishment.
David Saperstein, the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, reportedly had discussed the situation of the two pastors during meetings with Sudanese officials Tuesday. Sudanese officials have denied that the pastors' release is a result of that meeting, but Saperstein acknowledged the plight of religious minorities in Sudan – such as the Christian pastors – was a topic of discussion.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which calls Sudan a "country of particular concern," had repeatedly called on Sudan to release the pastors.
The American Center for Law & Justice has also been in the fight to free the Sudanese pastors. On July 13, the group sent a letter to Sudanese officials asking them to adhere to the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights and release the pastors.