Analysis

What does Supreme Court ruling mean for Iran’s Christian prisoners of conscience?

What does Supreme Court ruling mean for Iran’s Christian prisoners of conscience?

Article18 asks human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz about the practical implications for Iran’s Christian prisoners of conscience of the recent Supreme Court ruling, which found that house-church activities and the promotion of Christianity did not constitute “actions against national security”.


Clockwise from top-left: Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Hossein Kadivar, Mohammad Vafadar, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Behnam Akhlaghi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian

In practice, what will be the impact of the Supreme Court ruling for the nine Christian converts involved, who are currently serving five-year sentences? Will they be released?

HA: “In the first place, the lawyer of these Christian converts, according to Article 474 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, has taken their case to the Supreme Court, and this court has ruled that there should be a retrial.

“According to Article 478, after this verdict, the initial sentence is rendered null and void, and the case must be examined again from the beginning, while taking into account the Supreme Court ruling, including the clarification that attending a house-church is not a crime.

“Now the case is sent to a different branch of the Revolutionary Court [than the one which gave the original verdict], under a different judge. For example, if Branch 28 issued this verdict, then Branch 20 may review the case this time.

“If this new branch rejects the ruling of the Supreme Court and upholds the initial Revolutionary Court decision, the ruling can be appealed [by the defendants]. If the appeal court also upholds their conviction, then the case can be sent back to the same branch of the Supreme Court which issued this ruling, and if this branch still insists on its ruling, the case will be referred to the General Assembly of the Supreme Court, which consists of all heads of the 50 or so branches of the Supreme Court, including high-ranking judicial officials, such as the Attorney General.

“And the ruling of this body will either be a final verdict only in this case, or can set a precedent to be applied to all similar cases if the composition of the General Assembly includes representatives from every rank of the Supreme Court.”

Can these nine Christian converts now apply for at least a temporary release?

HA: “Yes. The lawyers of these Christian converts, or even they themselves, can now ask to be released on bail, and if the prison rejects their requests, their continued detention would be illegal.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the requests of Christian converts. So why the change?

HA: “It is a fact that we have always made clear in our work that Christian converts are innocent, and that what they do in their church or homes is sacred and between them and God, and that their actions are not mentioned anywhere in the law as a crime.

“Fortunately, this time the case was sent to an independent court, whose decision was not influenced by the security and intelligence agencies. According to the law, Christian converts are innocent, and every time a court rules against them, it is a violation of their rights.

“Under any fair and legal ruling, Christians should always be found to have acted entirely within the law. The law does not anywhere say that attending a house-church or worshipping in a group is a crime. 

“Christians do not act against national security, neither do they have any intention to act against national security.

“The basic Christian principle is respect for others, and in their groups they only perform their sacred rituals, such as prayer.”

You represented another Christian prisoner of conscience, Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh. What effect will this ruling have on the situation of imprisoned Christians like him?

HA: “Certainly, Christian prisoners like Mr Gol-Tapeh, citing the verdict of Branch 28 of the Supreme Court, can demand a retrial and say that ‘our situation is just like that of these nine Christian converts’, and that attending a house-church is not a crime.”