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Meriam Ibrahim: What is really going on in Sudan?
The arrest, release and then rearrest of Meriam Ibrahim is not really about visas, exit stamps and plane tickets, writes Harriet Alexander. Instead it's a potent cocktail of political positioning, religious extremism and family feuding - with a young mother at its centre When rumour of her release from prison first surfaced, we didn't dare to believe it. When it was confirmed by the Sudanese authorities, we began to have real hope. When she walked out of Omdurman women's prison on Monday afternoon, we finally had faith: Meriam Ibrahim, after six months on death row for her religious beliefs, was free. But the celebrations lasted less than 24 hours. Now she is back in custody again. What is happening in Sudan? Why the confusion? How can a woman whose incarceration caused headlines around the world – with Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Ban Ki-moon all discussing her case – be treated in such a way? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, lies less in her gender or beliefs, and more in her part in a big political game of chess. The 27-year-old was arrested at the airport on Tuesday, with her husband and two young children: Martin, aged almost two, and baby Maya – who was born in prison last month, while her mother's legs were shackled. Sudanese media claim that the US vice consul was with them at the time of their arrest, and Ms Ibrahim's husband, Daniel Wani, said that they were on their way to Washington DC. Mr Wani was born in South Sudan before independence, and has dual US citizenship. Suffering from muscular dystrophy, and in a wheelchair, he lives in New Hampshire and had been trying to secure permission for his wife to join him in the US when she was first arrested, in December. What appears to have irked the authorities is that they had not approved the family's moves – or perhaps that her release was being seen as a global human rights victory. They have since said that she was detained for not having the correct travel documents – even though her lawyers, and the South Sudan representative, all insist that the paperwork is correct. With no direct flights from Sudan to the US, due to sanctions, South Sudan was to be a transit country. Washington placed sanctions on Sudan in 1993, listing Khartoum as state sponsor of terrorism for hosting prominent militants including Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal. It added a trade embargo in 1997. But the government of President Omar al-Bashir, who since 1989 has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist, did not want to seem like it was accepting defeat. In one final throw of the dice, they detained her – because they could. In spite of the international pressure, they showed who really rules the Nile nation. Yet they did so with a ready-made get-out clause. They don't want to hang her or detain her indefinitely; to do so not only defies logic, but it would also cause a huge international uproar. They need to be seen to impose their own laws on their own territories, but find a way of letting her go. Ahmed Bilal Osman, the information minister, was on Wednesday night dispatched to explain that she should have used a Sudanese passport. "That is the whole problem; she took a foreign document for travelling," he said. "What she has done is an illegal act." But then he added the key phrase: "I'm sure she will clear herself, get the passport and she can travel. No problem." And most people believe that she will soon be released, once Khartoum has made its point. The past few days have been mainly about politics. But in the beginning it was certainly about religion – Sudan imposed Sharia law in 1983, and apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Even that, however, wasn't the full story. Sudan hasn't put anyone to death for apostasy since 1985, and the application of Sharia in the country is often clumsy, inconsistent and dictated by political whims. Furthermore, Ms Ibrahim's case became muddied by claim and counter-claim as to her childhood faith. She insisted she was raised a Christian; other family members vehemently maintained she was a Muslim, and even the death penalty should be given if she did not return. That added to suspicion that this wasn't about religion, but rather a nasty family feud – to gain control, it was speculated, of Ms Ibrahim's successful businesses. Neither can this be seen as a straightforward women's rights issue. There are more elements at play. That the glamorous woman in the wedding photographs was imprisoned, chained to the ground heavily pregnant, certainly resonated more because she was a woman. Would we have reacted with such anger if it was a man? She was arrested because her family denounced her for leaving Islam. Could you imagine a woman in Sudan, which imposes Sharia law, being able to inflict the same punishment on her brother? But the last person to be executed for apostasy was a man. Women in Sudan offer suffer terrible discrimination, but in the case her gender, in reality, had little to do with the sentence or the subsequent events. So while the diplomats work out a way to free the family, without losing face, Ms Ibrahim sits in her cell. "Meriam knows about the campaign to free her, and is grateful," her lawyer, Elshareef Ali Mohamed, told me. "But all she wants is to get out of prison. She doesn't want to be a star."