In prison at the age of 14 for having fatally stabbed her uncle in northern Iraq, Asya Ahmad Muhammad's early release on Nov. 10 thanks to a juvenile court decision was overshadowed by fear of retaliation from her extended Muslim family.
Also known as Maria, the now 16-year-old Muhammad was sentenced to five years in prison for killing her paternal uncle in self-defense on July 9, 2006 when he attacked her, her mother and little brother at their family kitchen utensil store in the outskirts of Dohuk. The uncle had cut her mother with a knife and was fiercely beating them for converting to Christianity and for "shaming" the family by working in public when Muhammad stabbed him.
Clearing her of an original conviction for premeditated murder, the Erbil high court last year had reduced Muhammad's sentence from five to three-and-a-half years, upholding an earlier decision that she was guilty of killing her uncle though she acted in defense of herself and others.
Muhammad's lawyer, Akram Al-Najar, told Compass that following his appeal to the Dohuk juvenile court, the court earlier this month agreed to reduce her sentence to two years and four months on the basis of her good conduct and having served nearly three-quarters of her three-and-a-half year sentence.
"She deserved to be released since her behavior and attitude was excellent," said Al-Najar. "That is why the court accepted my request and decided to reduce her punishment to two years and four months."
Local Christians have commented that Muhammad's sentence was light, considering that it was culturally acceptable for an uncle to beat his niece. Her jail time also meant that she didn't have to fear reprisal attacks from her relatives.
But Muhammad's release from prison now means a possible retaliation from extended family members for her uncle's death, said Al-Najar.
"I am not sure she is safe right now, especially after her release, since there are still people intent on gaining revenge," said the lawyer. Father Threatened
Muhammad's father, Ahmad Muhammad Abdurahman, who converted in 1998 while working in Beirut, said that in the last week family members have called him twice telling him his days of joy are numbered.
"My sisters called me, and my brother's wife called me also and said, 'You are a shame. Don't be happy in your family; we will never let you be happy in your family,'" Abdurahman told Compass.
He explained that his change in faith was grounds for an "honor" crime in his Kurdish family, and even more so now that blood had been shed. His father, a Muslim cleric, was enraged by Abdurahman's conversion. Abdurahman's deceased brother, Sayeed, on five occasions had tried to kill him and had also burned down his house. Abdurahman has seven brothers.
Abdurahman said that since the release of his only daughter, he has left his old home but remains in the town of Dohuk, unsure of what the next step is for his family. He said his only hope now is to come up with the "blood money" necessary to buy peace with his family for his brother's death. The court has set this amount at 10 million Iraqi dinars.
Unable to keep a stable job, Abdurahman is not sure he will be able to come up with the amount, nor whether it will suffice to keep his family safe within the borders of Iraq.
"I just pray that God gives me provision to take my daughter and family to a different country," he said. "We have now moved to a different house, but I am afraid they will come and contact me again. I want to keep my daughter and wife safe, but I don't know how I will manage to do so."
In a phone interview with Christian support organization Open Doors, Muhammad said her time in prison had been difficult and she was thankful to be back with her family.
"I am very glad because God gave me a miracle, and I am very happy to meet my mother and my father," she told a representative of the organization. "My hope is in Jesus; I always prayed for God to comfort my mother until I see my mother, I see my family again."
Relative 'Safe Haven'
Despite the recent waves of violence in Mosul, south of Dohuk in northern Iraq, Abdurahman said that the Kurdish part of the country is still considered a safe haven for Christians, where many Christian families from Mosul have also fled in recent weeks
"Many Christians come here from Mosul and Baghdad, and the Kurdish government does a good job to protect Christians," he said. "That's what I see."
He noted, however, that according to Iraqi law it is still not possible for Iraqis to change their religion on their national identification cards.
"It is my dream that one day I will be free to change my ID card," he said. "My card now writes 'Muslim.' But my faith is Christian."
Abdurahman asked for prayer as he looks for a job or a way to get out of Iraq.
"I don't know what will come from God," he said. "I'm not worried about that, but my family needs help, they need food and things … I'm just thanking God that he brought my sheep, my daughter, into the family again."