In a case religious freedom advocates were watching closely, two Sudanese Christian pastors-- charged with spying and facing possible death sentences in South Sudan -- have been set free.   

A Sudanese judge released Presbyterian pastors Yat Michael Ruot and Peter Yein Reith of South Sudan from Kober, a maximum security prison in North Khartoum Wednesday, the Christian Daily reported. The two had been in prison since the beginning of the year on six charges of crimes committed against the Sudanese government and were liable to face the death penalty or life imprisonment.

“I am feeling free because I was in jail for many months. I have become like I’m born again,” said Ruot in a statement to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a nonprofit organization for religious freedom.

Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services had charged them with undermining the constitution and espionage. But local and international supporters had long maintained that their arrest and subsequent trial was nothing more than an ongoing witch hunt by a militant Islamist government in the capital city of Khartoum.

Religious freedom groups across the world had called for the pastors’ release and more than 220,000 signed an American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) petition demanding they be set free.

“We are very happy now we are free because of your prayers. Thank you for all that you have done for us, “ Reith told the ACLJ.  

Ruot was arrested last December after he delivered a Sunday sermon in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. Reith was arrested a few weeks later, on Jan. 11, when he was called in by Security Services for unknown reasons. His supporters believe it may have been because of a letter he wrote to the government’s Office of Religious Affairs in Khartoum regarding the arrest of Ruot.

The prosecution made its case against the pastors at their trial in July, but the defense team was not allowed to adequately prepare their case, with the judge allowing attorneys to meet with the pastors for just 15 minutes.

Lawyers for Reith and Ruot had argued that the pastors were not in violation of Sudanese law. They said that when Ruot preached at Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Dec. 2014, he was urging “believers to be zealous for their church,” which is “not an insult against God.” The defense also said that the pastors were illegally detained, that the court lacked evidence, and asked the court to respect the Sudanese Constitution.

“Justice requires that you don’t judge simply because you [suspect], without any concrete evidence,” stated a defense attorney.

The whereabouts of the pastors -- both of whom belong to the Presbyterian Evangelical Church – were unknown for months, a violation of international law. In April, their location was finally revealed when they were transported to a detention center in the capital city. They were separated within the prison’s general population-- leaving them unable to depend on each other for support—and were not allowed visits from their wives.  

Two witnesses came forward to testify on behalf of Reith and Ruot. Abdul Aziz Khalid, an ex-army general took issue with the evidence presented by the prosecution on espionage charges.  The prosecution had provided maps found on the men’s computers to the judge. Khalid revealed that the maps were not classified information, but were available to all civilians. An technical expert testified that it would have been easy for someone to plant information on the pastors’ laptops.

Despite this lack of evidence, the judge refused to dismiss the case until this week. “The sentence they served in prison is enough. Release them immediately and return the mobile phones and laptops,” said Judge Ahmed Ghaboush from Khartoum North Central Court Wednesday.

Sudan has long been governed under strict Sharia law and archaic judicial punishments are often doled out among the accused. Stoning, flogging and even crucifixion are all considered acceptable. The country’s public order law allows police officers to publically whip women they consider to be guilty of public indecency.