Sudan charges Christian mom with using phony travel documents

The Christian mom freed after being sentenced to death in Sudan is back in a Khartoum lockup for allegedly using phony documents in a bid to flee the Islamic nation.

Meriam Ibrahim, who gave birth in prison after being sentenced to death in May for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity, was detained with her husband, Daniel Wani, at Khartoum airport Tuesday as she tried to leave the country. Although sources close to her legal team said she is being held at Khartoum police station, Seif Yasin, spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, told that Ibrahim is "free to leave Sudan, she just has to do it legally."

"It is regrettable and disturbing that some elements attempted to bring Meriam to U.S by issuing her an entry visa on a fraudulent traveling document obtained from a foreign country (for a woman the whole world knows ... is [a] Sudanese national )," Yasin said in a statement. "That is inexcusable and unnecessary violations for all laws and regulations, including U.S. ones. The same legal system that protects her right and secures her freedom is capable of guaranteeing her right to leave the country whenever the legal procedure comes to an end."

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday the detention was temporary and that American diplomats were working with their Sudanese counterparts to free Ibrahim, but a post on the Facebook page of Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services' media department indicated the charges are considered serious in the Muslim nation.

"The airport passport police arrested Abrar after she presented emergency travel documents issued by the South Sudanese Embassy and carrying an American visa," read the post, referring to Ibrahim by her Muslim family name. "The Sudanese authorities considered [the action] a criminal violation, and the Foreign Ministry summoned the American and South Sudanese ambassadors."

The travel document Ibrahim produced at the airport, an image of which was obtained by, appears to have been issued by South Sudan, the largely Christian nation that seceded from Sudan in 2011 and is now at sharp odds with Khartoum. Alan Goulty, the former UK ambassador to Sudan and a Global Fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Wani, who holds U.S. citizenship, is from South Sudan, which could explain that nation's diplomatic involvement.

Al-Sharif Ali, a member of her legal team, told Ibrahim was arrested in a show of force that included dozens of agents from the National Intelligence and Security Service. A source close to Ibrahim's family said she is still being held, contrary to reports that she was freed.

"As of this morning, she was still being held at the police station," he said. "Her lawyer was able to finally see her."

On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was again questioned about the case but declined to go into detail. She strongly denied that the U.S. played any role in providing improper paperwork to Ibrahim.

“I can't comment a lot more on the specifics of her travel documents,” Harf said. “Obviously we're working with her and her family and the government of Sudan to try and get everything in proper order so she can and her family departs swiftly.”

“It's very much our position that they need to be able to depart Sudan quickly.  I don't have any more details on what their travel will look like,” She added during the briefing. “So, we clearly care about this very deeply...and are working very hard to resolve it.”

Supporters of Ibrahim say they won't feel she is safe until she is out of the war-torn nation.

"We're encouraged that the State Department is engaged and working to secure the freedom of Meriam and her family," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which gathered more than 300,000 signatures for an online petition demanding Ibrahim's freedom. "Whether Meriam and her family have been 'temporarily detained' or arrested, holding U.S. citizens against their will is extremely disturbing and unacceptable. It has always been our concern that the only way the Ibrahim family could be truly safe is to leave Sudan."

Ibrahim, 27, refused to renounce her Christian faith in court in May, prompting a judge to sentence her to hang for apostasy. The case became an international cause, with several U.S. lawmakers and the State Department blasting the decision as barbaric. Sudan's national news service SUNA said the Court of Cassation in Khartoum on Monday canceled the death sentence after defense lawyers presented their case, and that the court ordered her release.

Ibrahim and Wani were married in a formal ceremony in 2011 and operate several businesses, including a farm, south of Khartoum, the country’s capital.

Wani fled to the United States as a child to escape the civil war in southern Sudan, but later returned. He is not permitted to have custody of his son because the boy is considered Muslim and cannot be raised by a Christian man.

Ibrahim’s case first came to the attention of authorities in August, after members of her father’s family complained that she was born a Muslim but married a Christian man. The relatives claimed her birth name was “Afdal” before she changed it to Meriam and produced a document that indicated she was given a Muslim name at birth. Her attorney has alleged the document was a fake.

Ibrahim says her mother was an Ethiopian Christian and her father a Muslim who abandoned the family when she was a child. Ibrahim was initially charged with having illegitimate sex last year, but she remained free pending trial. She was later charged with apostasy and jailed in February after she declared in court that Christianity was the only religion she knew.

“I was never a Muslim,” she told the Sudanese high court. “I was raised a Christian from the start.”

Sudan’s penal code criminalizes the conversion of Muslims to other religions, which is punishable by death. Muslim women in Sudan are further prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, although Muslim men are permitted to marry outside their faith. Children, by law, must follow their father’s religion.