Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) is proposing to remove the death penalty for apostasy, according to a TMC minister.
Mohammad Hassan Arabi, a member of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) Coordination Council, said a new bill has been put forward proposing its repeal. In its place will be a disposition making it a criminal offence to accuse someone of apostasy.
Arabi told the Sudan Tribune that the death penalty “puts freedom of opinion and belief at risk and undermines social peace and stability”.
He said the Ministry of Justice’s legal committee believes that Islam recognises the freedom of religion as a right for every individual. The bill will go before the ruling sovereign council and the civilian government cabinet for approval.
Sudan’s current penal code was drafted under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted by the military in April last year after 30 years in power. While apostasy was already criminalised under Sudan’s previous criminal code, Bashir’s regime brought the country’s legal system closer to an ultraconservative interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).
Sudan is one of the few countries in the world where people have been executed for apostasy. In 1985, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a 76-year-old moderate Muslim political leader who had opposed the establishment of sharia by the government of President Jaafar al-Nimeiri, was hanged as an apostate for his views.
Other countries have the death penalty for apostasy, including Afghanistan, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, but are not known to have carried out a sentence in recent times. Iran also has the death penalty for apostasy in relation to a law stating that any subject about which the “law of the land is silent” will be treated according to Islamic sources and fatwas. Christian convert from Islam, Hussein Soodmand, was hanged in Iran in 1990.
Sometimes people are sentenced to death and then reprieved. In Sudan in May 2014, pregnant Christian Meriam Yahia Ibrahim was sentenced to death for apostasy after refusing to renounce her Christian faith. The 27-year-old, whose father was Muslim but was brought up a Christian from the age of six, had her sentence quashed in June 2014 by Sudan’s appeal court.
In Afghanistan in 2006, Christian Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam 16 years earlier, was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death. An international outcry ensued, and eventually Rahman was declared by the Afghan authorities to be mentally unfit, meaning under sharia he could not be held responsible for apostasy.
Under classical sharia, Muslims who abandon their religion face severe punishment. According to all schools of sharia, mentally sane adult male apostates face the death penalty. The Maliki school of sharia, which has historically predominated in Sudan, also prescribes a death sentence for sane adult female apostates, and holds that even inward unspoken apostasy is punishable. It allows just three days for repentance before the death sentence should be implemented.
The action of accusing another Muslim of being an apostate – thereby rendering it legal to kill them – is known as takfir. It was a principle developed in the seventh century by the Khariji sect (who no longer exist) and has been adopted by modern-day Islamists as a way of justifying their violent attacks on more moderate Muslims whose theology or practice they disagree with.