On Saturday the news broke that Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held prisoner for 5 years in Afghanistan had been released. The same day a Sudanese official announced they would likely soon free Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to hanging for allegedly leaving Islam. With no end in sight to the turmoil in places like Ukraine and Thailand, and the far-right making gains in the European elections, a bit of good news might be welcome.
Bowe Bergdahl was the longest held prisoner of America’s two 21st century wars. He was captured by the Taliban back in 2009, in circumstances that are still unclear. Some sources say he fell behind on a patrol, others that he was captured after leaving his base in the night. Days before he was captured he sent an email to his parents describing how disillusioned he was with the army and the war, which makes the second scenario more plausible. Whatever the case, he was held for five years in Pakistan and only seen in five videos made by his captors, in which he compared the war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War.
His release came after months of negotiations between the Taliban and the US in Qatar. Special Forces helicopters descended to a remote Afghan location, where they were met by 18 Taliban fighters who handed Bergdahl over. Reports suggest he is in a good condition, but is having trouble speaking English after five years in the mountains of Pakistan.
Despite the joy in the US at his return, this is a costly victory. Bergdahl was only handed over after the US set five Taliban leaders free from Guantanamo Bay. They had been held there for over ten years, as the US considered them a high risk to their security. While under the terms of the deal they aren’t allowed to leave Qatar for at least a year, it will be painful to see such high up leaders eventually return to Afghanistan. With the US planning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in the next few years, the Americans may simply be hoping the ‘Taliban Five’ become someone else’s problem
The case of Meriam Ibrahim has not yet had the same happy ending for her family. The two charges against her, leaving Islam (apostasy) and committing adultery, have not yet actually been dropped. Last month she was sentenced for the crime of apostasy, which is Sudan is punishable by death. However, Meriam was never actually a Muslim, but was brought up Orthodox Christian by her mother. The court decided however that since her father was a Muslim, and Meriam refused to give up her Christianity, this meant she had left her Islam. As she had married her husband in a Christian marriage, the court also decided that this was not legitimate. She had therefore committed adultery as well, and was sentenced to an extra 100 lashes. Throughout this ordeal Meriam was pregnant, and gave birth in prison a few days ago. She was still in shackles at the time.
The case had led to a huge international outcry. Christian and human rights groups across the world have been campaigning for her release, and Western government have pressured the Sudanese government to release her. Yesterday a Sudanese official said that this would take place, as Sudan “guaranteed religious freedom”. However today her husband said that he hasn’t heard anything from the government yet, and that matters are still unclear.
Meriam Ibrahim’s story has highlighted the debate in Islam over whether apostasy is acceptable. Islamic scholars have been debating this since the early days of Islam, with some saying it is allowed and others saying it must be punishable by death. Incredibly though, the majority of Middle Eastern countries still officially carry the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam. While no executions have been carried out in recent years, many have been charged in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and now Sudan. The biggest threat to converts to Christianity or atheism however comes from their own countrymen and women. Apostates are often attacked and threatened with death, and a survey in 2011 showed that many people in these countries supported the death penalty for apostasy. If Meriam is soon released, she and her family will most likely have to flee the country. While the laws and attitudes towards alleged apostates remain as they are, the stories of people like Meriam won’t have the happy ending Bowe Bergdahl’s does.