by Rafael Medoff
The wife of an American citizen is about to be executed in Sudan for the “crime” of marrying a non-Muslim. The Obama administration has “strongly condemned” the impending death sentence. Is that the best it can do?
The genocide carried out by the Sudanese government in the Darfur region has long since receded from the world’s headlines, but atrocities against non-Arab civilians continue. The United Nations reported in March that more than 200,000 Darfur residents have been displaced so far this year by the ongoing attacks.
Part of the reason for the international community’s disinterest is that, as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once put it, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” When hundreds of thousands of people are massacred or exiled, it all seems like a blur. The public needs to see the face of one individual victim to take the suffering seriously.
Well, here’s the face of the latest victim of genocidal Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Her name is Meriam Ishag. She’s a 27 year-old doctor, married to New Hampshire resident Daniel Wani. Meriam is being held in a Khartoum prison together with their 20 month-old son, Martin. Since her father was Muslim, Meriam is considered Muslim by the Sudanese regime and therefore her marriage to Wani, a Christian, was illegal–and punishable by death.
One more thing: Meriam is eight months pregnant. She is scheduled to be executed after she gives birth. Before the death sentence is carried out, however, she will be given 100 lashes for “adultery.” Since the regime considers her marriage illegal, her relationship with her husband Daniel makes her an adulteress in the eyes of the Sudanese “justice” system.
Surprised that a two-bit dictator such as Omar Bashir would have the gall to execute the wife of an American citizen? Don’t be. For the past five years, the Obama administration has made it clear to Bashir, in words and deeds, that it is not prepared to confront him.
Despite being indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court for his leadership role in the Darfur genocide, Bashir has openly visited numerous African and Arab countries. Many of those regimes are major recipients of U.S. aid, yet the Obama administration has consistently declined to criticize or penalize them for hosting the Butcher of Darfur.
In May 2010, President Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, indicated in Senate testimony that the administration favors trying Bashir before a local Sudanese court–which would be far more lenient than the International Criminal Court.
In December 2011, Gration’s successor, Princeton Lyman, told a London Arab newspaper: “Frankly we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change…It is not in our interests to see the ouster of the regime in Sudan, for this will only create more problems.”
In June 2012, the Obama administration opposed congressional efforts to penalize governments that host visits by Bashir.
In the spring of 2013, the administration invited an official delegation representing Bashir’s regime to visit the U.S.; the plan was canceled only after an outcry by human rights groups.
Earlier this month, Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation presented its “Ambassador to Humanity” award to President Obama in recognition of what Spielberg called his “commitment to human rights” and “interest in expanding justice.”
“Humanity” is a pretty big constituency. A big, faceless statistic, as Stalin might have said. Perhaps the president should start small, focusing on the tragedy of one impending death. Freeing Meriam Ishag and reuniting her with her American husband would be a worthy goal.
In his remarks at the Spielberg ceremony, President Obama seemed hesitant about intervening in human rights crises overseas. When weighing whether to intervene, he said, “I have to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment.” He suggested that we focus on “keeping memories alive,” so that “drop by drop by drop we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive.”
The U.S. is not powerless. It can do more than the “drop by drop by drop” approach. It does have “levers” with which to help Dr. Meriam Ishag. The administration could, for example, put political and economic pressure on the Arab League, which has been helping to prop up and protect the Bashir regime. That’s just one idea. If they have the will, the policymakers in the White House and State Department undoubtedly can come up with additional tools to ensure that Meriam Ishag does not become yet another victim, yet another faceless statistic.