Sudan Mother on Death Row: State Dept. Can’t Say Whether Senators’ Asylum Appeal Has Been Received

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2014 | 8:16 PM EDT

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (Screenshot: State Department)

( – Four days after two Republican senators appealed to Secretary of State John Kerry for “immediate action and full diplomatic engagement” in the case of the Sudanese Christian woman on death row for apostasy, Kerry’s spokes- woman said Tuesday she did not know whether the letter had been received.

Jen Psaki was also unable to say whether there had been any direct contact between U.S. and Sudanese authorities about Meriam Ibrahim’s plight.

She pointed to an earlier joint statement issued by the U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch embassies in Khartoum, then added, “I think they are clear on our concerns. I don’t have any specific readouts of direct contact, but we have been expressing our concerns in a broad means of manners.”

Ibrahim, 27, is eight months’ pregnant and incarcerated together with her 20 month-old son, Martin. Her husband, Daniel Wani, is an American citizen with ties to New Hampshire. Psaki on Monday declined to say whether their imprisoned toddler was a U.S. citizen.

In their letter to Kerry on Friday, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) urged his “full attention” to the case.

“We request your immediate action and full diplomatic engagement to offer Meriam political asylum and to secure her and her son’s safe release,” they wrote, concluding their letter with a request for “a prompt response regarding the actions taken by the Department of State to secure Meriam’s freedom.”

“I’m aware of the letter,” Psaki said in response to a question during Tuesday’s daily press briefing. “I’m not sure if we’ve received it yet. Sometimes it’s announced before it’s received, as you know.”

Psaki reiterated the administration’s position, stated in a press release on Thursday, that it was “deeply disturbed” by the death sentenced handed to Ibrahim “after she refused to recant her Christian faith and declare herself a Muslim.”

“We call on the government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, including one’s right to change one’s faith or beliefs, a right which is enshrined in international human rights law as well as in Sudan’s own 2005 interim constitution,” she said. “We call on Sudanese legal authorities to approach this case with the compassion that is in keeping with the values of the Sudanese people.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a veteran religious freedom advocate, on Tuesday joined the senators’ appeal for asylum for Ibrahim.

“It is 7 p.m. now in Khartoum, and a young, frightened Sudanese woman is shackled in a prison cell for refusing to renounce her Christian faith,” he said in a speech on the House floor.

“Meriam Ibrahim is eight months pregnant and her draconian sentence of death by hanging is being delayed until she gives birth,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”

Wolf referred to the appeals from Blunt and Ayotte, and also from Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), founder and co-chair of the congressional international religious freedom caucus.

“The administration must urgently act to save this innocent woman’s life,” Wolf said. “President Obama should immediately appeal for her release and offer her safe haven, here in the United States.”

Ibrahim’s plight is drawing growing attention online, with messages pouring into Twitter using the hashtag #SaveMeriam.

An American Center for Law and Justice petition had attracted 125,000 signatures by Tuesday evening, while several other online petitions had drawn 208,000, 125,000, and 66,000 signatures respectively.

Meriam Ibrahim’s plight is drawing growing attention online.

Vacant post

In their earlier letter to Kerry, Blunt and Ayotte also urged him and Obama “to reappoint an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, whose primary purpose is to monitor, prevent, and respond to this exact type of incident.”

The ambassador-at-large post has been vacant for seven months. At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Obama said, “I look forward to nominating our next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to help lead these efforts” to promote religious freedom around the world.

Asked Tuesday about the vacancy, Psaki replied, “Oftentimes there’s a process that is underway to find the right person, and certainly it’s something the secretary is committed to. I don’t have any prediction of the timing, but it is something we certainly will be filling.”

She confirmed that no-one has been nominated.

It took Obama 513 days after taking office before he first nominated someone to fill the then-vacant post. Suzan Johnson Cook was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2011, and served for 30 months before resigning last October.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow