Is the Obama Administration Muzzling Meriam Ibrahim Defenders?

by Joel Gehrke
Advocates for the family think the State Department is covering up potential mistakes.

State Department officials, under pressure since Sudanese woman Meriam Ibrahim and her American family were prevented from leaving the country for the United States, have discouraged congressional leaders from speaking out publicly on behalf of them, advocates for the family say.

Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy before the government ultimately overturned her conviction, was arrested for a second time on her way out of the country. Her husband, American citizen Daniel Wani, was also arrested.

The State Department said this week that Ibrahim’s family wanted members of Congress to “keep quiet” about her case, according to a religious-liberty advocate whose organization works with the Ibrahim family’s lawyers in Sudan.

“And that’s simply not true,” says Tina Ramirez, founder of Hardwired, which provides legal training in Sudan on religious liberty, told National Review Online. State was “lying” about the wishes of the Ibrahim family, she says. “I don’t know why they would say such a thing.”

Ramirez explained that the State Department told members of Congress that Meriam Ibrahim’s husband and her brother-in-law, Gabriel (who lives in New Hampshire), had asked that Congress stand down.

“State was advising Congress to back off,” Ramirez said.

A State Department spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on the specific question of whether the department had discouraged members of Congress from speaking out publicly on this case.

“The State Department is in close contact with members who are interested in this case,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala told NRO.  “We don’t discuss the details of those conversations but we greatly appreciate the support Congress has given the family, our embassy staff, and the interagency personnel in D.C. working towards a positive resolution of this case.”

A Hill staffer following Ibrahim case corroborated Ramirez’s account. “During this week’s fiasco, State has urged multiple congressional offices to maintain a ‘low profile’ on the Meriam case,” one Hill staffer told NRO, saying that the directive had gone primarily to Democratic offices inclined to follow State Department instructions.

“It’s clear that the State Department, or the embassy, screwed up in this case, royally,” says Ramirez. Although she acknowledges that negotiations could possibly be damaged by too much public talking, she believes that the State Department is trying to minimize its responsibility for Ibrahim’s second arrest.

“The documents that the U.S. arranged for the South Sudanese government to give Meriam falsified her information,” Ramirez said, explaining that the documents portrayed Ibrahim as South Sudanese, an inaccurate claim that was allegedly part of the basis of the latest arrest.

“It doesn’t make any sense why the U.S. would have put her in a precarious situation like that.  Had it not been for the U.S. giving them those documents, they never would have been held by the Sudanese police,” Ramirez concluded. The Sudanese government might have come up with another pretext for her arrest, though, she said.

Jhunjhunwala said that she couldn’t comment on Ibrahim’s visa documents because those records are confidential.

“From our perspective, Meriam has all of the documents she needs to travel to and enter the United States,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday. “It’s up to the government of Sudan to allow her to exit the country. As I said, we’re working with them on that right now.”

Jhunjhunwala confirmed that U.S. embassy personnel “were with the family at the airport as long as airport authorities would allow,” although it’s not clear if the diplomatic staff were present when the Sudanese authorities detained the family. Ramirez said that it was her understanding that they were not. The diplomatic staff did deliver Ibrahim and her family to the airport in Khartoum.

“Let’s be clear: This constituted the involuntary removal of three American citizens and their wife and mother from American diplomatic custody even as American diplomats were allegedly shepherding them to safety,” David French, senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and an NRO contributor, says. The ACLJ has engaged in public advocacy on behalf of Ibrahim.

“That’s a grave affront to American diplomats, a serious diplomatic incident, and a demonstration that the Obama administration failed to plan for potential resistance from Sudanese authorities, a failure that is naïve, at best,” he concluded.

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter at National Review Online.

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