Sudanese Christian still under police questioning: lawyer

KHARTOUM (AFP) - A Sudanese Christian woman threatened by Islamic extremists was Wednesday still being questioned by police over her travel documents after she was stopped from leaving Sudan following annulment of her apostasy death sentence.

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, 26, is not under arrest but is being questioned at a police station over the authenticity of an emergency travel document issued by South Sudan, her lawyer, Mohanad Mustafa, told AFP.

Her American husband Daniel Wani and her two children, including a baby girl born while she was on death row, are with her.

Kau Nak, charge d'affaires at the South Sudanese embassy in Khartoum, insisted the document was valid.

"I'm the one who issued that travel document to her," Kau Nak told AFP. "My signature is on the back of the document." He said neither the police nor any other official had contacted him about its authenticity.

"It is a normal document we give to our citizens when they are returning home. We gave that to her and her kids", Kau Nak said, explaining that Ishag is entitled to the document because her husband and children are South Sudanese.

Kau Nak said he signed the papers, which are valid for three months, on Tuesday morning after they provided all relevant documentation including a marriage certificate.

"Nobody knows" how long the police investigation will take, the lawyer Mustafa said, declining to say which country Ishag was ultimately trying to reach after leaving Sudan.

She was detained by national security agents at Khartoum airport while trying to leave Sudan on Tuesday afternoon, but was later taken to the police station.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Marie Harf downplayed the incident and said US officials would work with Khartoum to ensure the family would soon be on its way."They have not been arrested," she added. "The government has assured us of their safety. The embassy has and will remain highly involved in working with the family and the government."

A lower-court judge sentenced Ishag to death for apostasy on May 15, in a case that raised questions of religious freedom and sparked an outcry from Western governments and rights groups.

An appeal court freed her on Monday from the women's prison where she had been detained with her children, but she immediately went into hiding because of death threats by Islamic extremists.

Born to a Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother, Ishag was convicted by the lower court under Islamic sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and outlaws conversions on pain of death.

When Ishag was five her father abandoned the family, and she was raised according to her mother's faith.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum said she joined the Catholic church shortly before she married.

Ishag was stopped at Khartoum airport at roughly the same time the United Nations independent expert on human rights in Sudan, Mashood Adebayo Baderin, held a press conference in Khartoum.

He said that if she had received death threats, "as a citizen of this country, the Sudan has a duty to protect its citizens."

Baderin, who had visited Ishag in prison, agreed that the case "raises important legal questions about the right to freedom of religion and belief."