WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- A young Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery was instead given 75 lashes and then released, human-rights activists in the United States and Germany told United Press International Monday.
They said that while this punishment was still cruel, the reduction of her sentence nevertheless proved that the Sudan did heed international pressure.
It was unclear whether 18-year old Abok Alfa Akok was still pregnant at the time she was flogged Feb. 18, or had already given birth to the child that was the fruit of an allegedly adulterous liaison.
Albrecht Hofheinz, a scholar of Islamic studies who lives in Berlin, said according to his sources, Akok had her baby while in jail while awaiting the outcome of her appeal.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., disagreed. "To my knowledge she was still pregnant," he told UPI. The same court that sentenced Akok to death acquitted the child's father. Akok said he had raped her.
Under Sharia (religious) law, women should not be flogged while pregnant or recovering from childbirth. Neither may they be scourged in public, according to Hofheinz, who was a Red Cross representative in Sudan.
"They are whipped in rooms set aside for this purpose," he said. The Sharia stipulates that, unlike male offenders, women must have their bodies covered during the procedure. They are seated while being scourged.
"The man administering the punishment is not allowed to swing his arms fully during this procedure. To make sure that he only uses his lower arms, he must carry a book or a board wedged between his upper arms and his chest," Hofheinz explained.
Faith O'Donnell, Sudan specialist of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, elaborated that during the flogging a medical specialist is present to make sure that the offender does not die.
Eric Reeves, an English professor considered by many one of America's foremost experts on Sudanese human-rights abuses, insisted the punishment was severe enough for the victim to be scarred for life.
He agreed with Hofheinz that the psychological wounds inflicted on Akok will remain with her until she dies.
A criminal court -- not a religious tribunal -- in Nyala in Southern Darfur, one of Sudan's predominantly Christian states sentenced Akok to death Dec. 8, the Sudanese Victims of Torture Group reported.
The trial was conducted in Arabic, a language this Dinka tribeswoman did not master, religious rights activists pointed out. There was no interpreter present.
The case went to an appeals court in Khartoum, which overturned the sentence. It ordered the lower court to give the defendant a "rebuke" sentence, according to the organization.
The Sudanese Embassy in Washington did not return call for comment.
Albrecht Hofheinz, the German scholar, interpreted the reversal of Akok's sentence as evidence that the Sudan, which has been criticized for its human rights, can be swayed by international pressure.
Human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had appealed to Sudanese President Omar Bashir to intervene on behalf of the young woman.
Hofheinz works closely with HRW.
U.S. experts on Sudan agreed with Hofheinz that the Islamic regime in Khartoum did indeed respond to world opinion. However, they differed with him over the question of whether international critics ought to keep their tactics free of religion.
Hofheinz believes they should focus on the character of the state, not the faith. Reeves, Faith O'Donnell and religion specialist Paul Marshall of Freedom House countered that in Sudan's case, Islam was synonymous with the government; thus is was part of the problem.
Said O'Donnell, "Sure, this doesn't apply to those Islamic countries that don't follow the Sharia. But it does apply to nations that do. And the Sharia happens to be a religious law."