GENEVA: UN rights experts voiced outrage Monday at a Sudanese court order to hang a heavily pregnant Christian woman for marrying a Christian man and refusing to renounce her faith.
Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, a 27-year-old who is eight months pregnant with her second child, was convicted last week under the Islamic sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and makes conversions of faith punishable by death.
"This outrageous conviction must be overturned and Ms. Ibrahim must be immediately released," insisted the UN experts on a range of issues, including on the human rights situation in Sudan, violence against women, minorities and the freedom of religion or belief.
They stressed in a statement that under international law, "the death penalty may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, if at all."
"Choosing and/or changing one's religion is not a crime at all. On the contrary, it is a basic human right," they said.
The young mother was found guilty of apostasy, or publicly renouncing Islam -- a faith she never professed -- and sentenced to hang after she refused to "return" to the Muslim religion.
Ishag, who was born to a Christian mother and Muslim father, was also sentenced to 100 lashes for "adultery", for living with the Christian man she has been married to since 2012.
Under Sudan's interpretation of sharia, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man and any such relationship is regarded as adulterous.
The UN experts said that the right to marry and found a family was a fundamental human right, and voiced particular concern that the heavily pregnant Ishag was being held with her 20-month-old son in "harsh conditions" at the Omdurman's Women Prison near Khartoum.
"The imposition and enforcement of the death penalty on pregnant women or recent mothers is inherently cruel and leads to a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," they warned.
They called on Sudan to repeal all discriminatory laws, adding there was a "pressing need to address the pattern of discrimination, abuse and torture as well as the subjugation and denigration of women in the country."
Sudan has an Islamist government but, other than floggings, extreme sharia law punishments have been rare.
If the death sentence is carried out, Ishag will be the first person executed for apostasy under the 1991 penal code, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based campaign group, said last week.