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Sudan: Meriam Ibrahim

Volume 754: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what actions they have taken to secure the release of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan, and to promote the terms of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers have condemned the sentence against Meriam Ibrahim in the strongest terms. We have raised our concerns with Sudanese Ministers and formally summoned the Sudanese chargé d’affaires in London. We urge Sudan to uphold its international obligations on freedom of religion by reversing this decision.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In a week in which we are focused on violence against women, is not the cruel treatment of Meriam Ibrahim—sentenced to 100 lashes to be followed by execution, and shackled while giving birth—emblematic of a regime which, from Darfur to South Kordofan, systematically murders and mistreats its own people? While I greatly welcome the Prime Minister’s condemnation of those medieval and tainted laws, is it not time that we exposed the hypocrisy of countries such as Sudan that sign up to the 1948 declaration of human rights, especially to Article 18, yet honour it only in its breach and treat their citizens in this barbaric way? Should we not be offering Meriam Ibrahim and her two little ones immediate refugee status, unequivocally demonstrating the value of a civilised country and a humane society?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to highlight this case, and I thank him for highlighting the global summit taking place this week. This case shows how important that summit is.

As I mentioned, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister condemned the sentencing. He stated that he was absolutely appalled by the decision and called her treatment barbaric. The Foreign Office has called on the Government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion and belief, a right which, as the noble Lord said, is enshrined in international human rights law, as well as in Sudan’s 2005 interim constitution. My honourable friend Lynne Featherstone also raised this case on 20 May with the Sudanese Foreign Minister. It is a case, above all, about freedom of religion and belief, and the noble Lord is quite right to highlight it.

Would it not be appropriate if Muslim leaders in this country—perhaps throughout Europe—who benefit from our freedom of religion, were to make an appeal to the Sudanese authorities, perhaps with international organisations such as the OIC? Have the Government encouraged British Muslim leaders to make such an appeal?

One of the features about this case—there are others—is the international outcry. A striking thing is the way that it has affected the Government of Sudan, who were taken aback by it. That shows that this kind of campaign—as the noble Lord will know, a lot is going on through social media—can be effective, and that all voices need to contribute.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. The UK taxpayer gives millions of pounds each year to fund work in Sudan, including specifically funding the education and training of 20,000 young people. What assurances can my noble friend give to the UK taxpayer that such education and training by NGOs enhances freedom of religion and belief, pluralism and the right to change one’s religion in Sudan?

Education is extremely important, and my noble friend is right to highlight our commitment to it. The United Kingdom Government raise human rights with the Government of Sudan. We are very much involved with human rights lawyers and organisations. We are training the human rights commission and trying to ensure that the majority of people in Sudan can follow their chosen religion and have freedom of religion and belief, and that those who are in minorities are not discriminated against.

Is the Minister aware that Meriam’s firstborn son, Martin, only about 18 months old, has been kept in prison with his mother because the authorities regard him as a Muslim and will not allow him to be raised by his Christian father, and that, if her death sentence is upheld, custody of her children will be granted to the Government because her husband is a Christian? Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government raise with the Government of Sudan the issue of what is being done to assess the well-being of Martin, the little boy, while he is in prison, whether it is true that the children’s father will not be allowed custody of the children and whether that is in accordance with Sudanese law or an imposition of Sharia law?

We are keeping a close eye on the welfare of not only the mother but the children—I asked about this as I was being briefed—and we are in close contact with the defence lawyers. One of the striking things in this case is the application of an older law, which is not in keeping with the 2005 interim constitution or what Sudan has agreed under international human rights obligations. We are urging the Government of Sudan to undertake a comprehensive review of their penal code in the light of this, so that they now keep not only to what they have agreed within Sudan but to their international obligations. What is important is that the majority should be protected. We have an individual case here which highlights things; we must not forget the other cases, too.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House what conversations Her Majesty’s Government have had with Mr Barroso and Mr Van Rompuy, who are meeting international faith leaders in Brussels tomorrow to press for united action in this case?

I will have to write to the right reverend Prelate in this regard to fill him in on that. However, I can tell him that we are keeping this case under close review and working with a number of different people.

My Lords, this is a matter of great concern to the whole House but, because we have now had a contribution—naturally—from a Member of the Bishops’ Benches, on my reckoning we should return to the Labour Benches. I appreciate the disappointment of my noble friend Lord Chidgey, who has been very patient.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a number of courageous and remarkable Sudanese women will be in London this week to attend the summit on ending sexual violence? These women have dared to speak out against widespread sexual violence, the near total impunity for its perpetrators and cruel and degrading treatment such as the public flogging of women. Can the Minister therefore assure the House that, as well as continuing to press for the release of Meriam Ibrahim, the UK will work to ensure that a review takes place of the Sudanese criminal code, which permits torture and the denial of fundamental rights?

As I mentioned just now, we are seeking to have the Government of Sudan review their penal code in the light of the obligations that they have made. The noble Baroness highlights the global summit this week and we are very pleased that women from civil society in Sudan are there. There is also a faith meeting there and, in answer to an earlier question, it is highly likely that this case will come up during that.