A recent case in Sudan in which Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a citizen who was at the time expecting her second child, was convicted of apostasy (renunciation of a religious faith) and adultery and sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging has led to condemnation around the world. Her conviction was due to her leaving Islam, marrying a Christian man, and refusing to recant. Amnesty International, which called Ibrahim’s sentence abhorrent, together with over 600,000 of its supporters, called for her immediate release. A group of United Nations human rights experts condemned the sentence, noting that the trial violated due process principles. The U.S. State Department called the death sentence deeply disturbing. A resolution condemning the sentence was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and a similar resolution was adopted in the U.S. Senate. Although, in what appears to be a response to the mounting pressure from the international community, the Sudanese government initially said that Ibrahim would be released, it quickly retracted the statement and Ibrahim’s case continues to unfold before an appeals court.
Sudan, which officially announced the introduction of an Islamic legal system in 1983, has executed at least one (access by subscription) person for apostasy since that time. Of course, Sudan is not the only country to criminalize apostasy. We recently completed a survey of twenty-three countries in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia that looked at the prevalence of apostasy being a capital offense (or as a lesser offense) and the frequency of its application.
We found that, in addition to Sudan, apostasy is a capital offense in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. However, our research indicated that, by and large, an apostasy charge or conviction can be vacated if the person denounces his or her new faith and returns to Islam.
Our research also found that, in some of the countries surveyed, there is less clarity as to the definition and status of apostasy as an offense. For example, although the formal laws in Morocco and Pakistan do not criminalize apostasy, the application of religious laws and related powers of religious institutions is somewhat unclear. In some jurisdictions where apostasy is not criminalized, other broadly-defined laws (particularly laws relating to blasphemy) could possibly be used to prosecute a person for renouncing his or her faith; Egypt is a good example of this approach to criminalizing apostasy. Furthermore, some countries, including Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, have used apostasy laws to prosecute acts other than conversion, such as scholarly writings and comments made on social media.
In addition, we found that in many of the jurisdictions surveyed, including those that do not actually criminalize apostasy, there may be various non-criminal consequences, including loss of property rights and parental rights, as well as extrajudicial actions that sometimes result in death.
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