Case Studies

Hadi Asgari, Shamiram Issavi, Victor Bet-Tamraz and Amin Afshar-Naderi

Hadi Asgari, Shamiram Issavi, Victor Bet-Tamraz and Amin Afshar-Naderi

This case study was used as part of a UK government-funded report into the persecution of Christians worldwide. The case involves four Christians facing long jail sentences: Victor Bet-Tamraz, his wife Shamiram Issavi, and Christian converts Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari.

Case referenced by

Article18, Amnesty International, OHCHR, Center for Human Rights in Iran, UK Parliament, Forbes, Middle East Concern.

Short Summary

On 26 December 2014 plain-clothed security officers raided pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz’s house during a Christmas celebration. They temporarily arrested all the attendees. Pastor Bet-Tamraz, and Mr. Amin Afshar-Naderi were detained. Later on Pastor Victor’s wife, Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, and Mr. Hadi Asgari were arrested. Pastor Victor was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, Mr. Afshar-Naderi to 15 years, Mr. Asgari to 10 years, and Mrs. Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh to 5 years.

Background events

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz is an Assyrian pastor. His church was officially recognised by the Iranian government until 2009. He led a Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Shahr-Ara, Tehran before it was shut down by Iran’s Ministry of the Interior in March 2009.

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz was a target of continuous harassment by the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) for many years. He held Farsi-speaking services for years at his church. In March 2009 the Assyrian Member of the Iranian Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, announced the closure of the church, by orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, as it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.

Pastor Victor refused to stop his Farsi-language services while the church was temporarily closed. For that reason and following pressure from the authorities, the church removed him from leadership and stopped Farsi-language services, and then the authorities re-opened the church but without Pastor Victor.

On 26 December 2014 plain-clothed security officers raided Pastor Victor’s house during a Christmas celebration. They temporarily arrested all the attendees. The authorities separated men from women and searched them, seizing all Bibles, cellphones, and identity documents. Pastor Victor and Mr. Amin Afshar-Naderi were detained. Pastor Victor was verbally charged with “conducting evangelism” and“illegal house-church activities”, among other charges that amount to the charge of “acting against national security”. He was released on bail (approx. $110.000) on 1 March 2015.

Following Pastor Victor’s arrest, his wife, Mrs.Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, was ordered to meet with officers of the Intelligence and National Security Organisation. She was questioned and interrogated for several hours. She was told to fill out various forms and write down information concerning their church- and house-group activities and they also requested a list of all members of their house-church, with their details.

On 26 August 2016, MOIS security officials raided a picnic in Firoozkooh in the Alborz Mountains, north-east of Tehran. Amin Afshar-Naderi asked to see the arrest warrant, which the officials did not produce, and instead showed him their gun, saying: “this is our warrant”. Mr. Afshar-Naderi was then beaten and arrested. There were no apparent reasons for the arrests apart from their Christian faith. The MOIS officials then asked all the individuals to fill in a form with their personal details, including their religious and church affiliation, their involvement in house-churches and social-media passwords. All were then taken to the Firoozkooh prosecutor’s office, where their charges of “house- church activities” were read out to them.

Women were released but the MOIS officials took five men to Evin Prison for interrogation. The men included Hadi Asgari, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Ramil Bet-Tamraz (the son of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz), and Mohammad Dehnavi. All were members of Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church before it was shut down by Iran’s Ministry of the Interior in March 2009. Mr. Asgari, Mr. Dehnavi, and Mr. Afshar-Naderi are converts to Christianity, but Mr. Bet-Tamraz is an Assyrian Christian.

The families were initially unable to obtain information about the whereabouts of those detained. The following day they were allowed to make brief calls and inform their families that they were held in Tehran’s Evin Prison. During the entire period they were not given access to lawyers. Mr. Asgari and Mr. Afshar-Naderi were charged with “acting against national security” and “organising and establishing house-churches”. Shortly after the arrests, two of the wives of these men were removed from their jobs on the orders of Iranian security forces.

On 10 October 2016, Ramil Bet-Tamraz and Mohammad Dehnavi were released after submitting bail equivalent to $33,000 each. At that time they had not been informed of any charges against them.

The men have since been charged with “acting against national security” and “organising and establishing house-churches”, and Mr. Bet-Tamraz faced additional charges related to the ministry of his father, Pastor Victor.

In February 2017, Mr. Asgari and Mr. Afshar-Naderi started a hunger strike in prison in protest at the lack of due process and to demand adequate medical care and an end to the delays in their case. Mr. Asgari was suffering from a kidney infection and did not receive any medical attention. On 12 February, Mr. Afshar-Naderi became very ill as his blood pressure dropped.

On 14 February, 11 days after their hunger strike, Mr. Ali Akbar Bakhtiari, head of the Attorney General’s office, and his deputy visited Evin Prison. During their visit, they promised to investigate the situation of political prisoners and others imprisoned on account of their religious beliefs. Mr. Asgari and Mr. Afshar-Naderi were also summoned to defend their cases and as a result it was agreed that the amount of bail requested for their release would be reduced from 200 million to 170 million tomans (about $52,000 each). A promise was given that their cases would be attended to.

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and Mr. Afshar-Naderi were summoned to a court hearing on Sunday 21 May 2017. The hearing took place at the 26th Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The hearing related to the charges laid against them following their arrest in December 2014. Pastor Victor and Mr. Afshar- Naderi attended the hearing, as did Mrs. Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh (wife of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz), Ramil Bet-Tamraz and Hadi Asgari. The hearing could not be concluded in Mr. Afshar-Naderi’s case because the judge had not provided all necessary documents to the defendant’s lawyer. It was agreed that the lawyer would meet the judge at a later date after she had examined the documents, as the cases of Pastor Victor and Mr. Afshar-Naderi are linked. No verdict was issued at this hearing.

A further hearing then took place on 11 June 2017. On the 3 July the Judge, Mr. Ahmadzadeh, gave his verdict. Pastor Victor was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, Mr. Afshar-Naderi to 15 years (including time already served) and Mr. Asgari to 10 years, all with a 2-year travel ban. The judge also raised the amount of bail for Mr. Afshar-Naderi to 270 million tomans (approximately $80,000) and 170 million tomans for Mr. Asgari (approximately $50,000). The legal representative of these men filed an appeal to overturn the sentences.

Mr. Afshar-Naderi was finally released on bail equivalent to $80,000 on 25 July 2017. He was still on hunger strike until the day of his temporary release. His physical health had greatly deteriorated. 48 hours after his release he was taken to hospital. The long-term effects of his time in prison remain a concern.

(Mr. Asgari was initially unable to raise the bail demanded for his conditional release. The appeal court then refused to allow conditional release, but finally he was allowed conditional release on 11 April 2018 on submission of bail of 120 million tomans.)

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Mr. Asgari and Mr. Afshar-Naderi were summoned to a first appeal hearing on 25 April 2018. The two judges allowed the defendants and their lawyer to present their defence, but they informed them that there will probably be two further hearings.

Shamiram Issavi charged and sentenced

Mrs. Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh was summoned to Evin Detention Centre, Branch 3 of the Revolutionary Court, in Tehran on Sunday, 19 June 2017. She was formally charged with “participating in foreign seminars”, as well as “acting against Iranian national security by being a member of the church leadership.” She was released after one day on a bail of 100 million tomans (approximately USD $30,000). Mrs. Issavi had not been formally arrested or charged by the authorities in the past.

Mrs. Issavi was called to attend a hearing on Monday, 31 July 2017 in Tehran at the 26th Branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, under Judge Ahmadzadeh. Mrs. Issavi’s lawyer requested that the hearing be postponed as he had no access to the case files and needed to go through all case-related documents prior to the hearing. The hearing was then postponed to 21 August 2017. On 21 August, Mrs. Issavi and her lawyer appeared in court and requested another postponement in order to gather more information and to better prepare for the hearing.

The hearing took place on 12 December 2017 and the verdict was delivered on 6 January 2018. Mrs. Issavi was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on charges of “action against national security”, “attending a foreign seminar” and “training church leaders to act against the regime”. There was a preliminary appeal hearing on 9 May 2018, but the judge spoke disrespectfully, making unsubstantiated claims against the family and would not allow Mrs. Issavi to speak in her defence.

Judge Ahmadzadeh of the 26th Revolutionary Court in Tehran oversaw the hearing on 18 June 2018 and delivered the verdict on 11 July. Mr. Ramil Bet-Tamraz (son of Victor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh), Amir-Saman Dashti and Mohamad Dehnavi were each sentenced to four months in prison for “acting against national security by attending house-churches.” Ramil is the third person in his family facing court proceedings on account of his Christian identity and actions. His mother, Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, is appealing a five-year prison term. His father, Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, is appealing a ten-year prison sentence.

Analysis

Similar to case study 1, the prisoners of this case have been persecuted by the Iranian authorities for years, mainly for practising their faith. Though Christians are one of the few religious minority groups that are officially recognised in Iran’s constitution that provides limited protection and freedom to worship (in theory, the Iranian constitution in five articles talks about the rights and the safety of minority groups: Article 13 specifies the freedom of the three recognised religious groups, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Article 14 talks about the human rights of non-Muslims. Article 64 gives religious minority groups the right to elect their own representatives in the parliament. Article 26 permits them to form political, social and professional parties. Article 19 speaks of the equality of all people, groups and ethnicities before the law), the recognised churches are not allowed to worship or hold any services in Farsi. They are not allowed to share their faith with Muslims or permit converts to participate in their church activities. If they do, the church may face severe persecution such as the closing down of the church and imprisoning of church leaders. The case of Pastor Victor is a good example of such a situation. In this case, the law does not protect them. Therefore, as described above, Pastor Victor and his leadership team have been a target of harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, imprisonment and unfair trials. Though their cases are faith-based, they have been given political charges.

Moreover, those detained or charged often have to obtain and hand over exorbitant amounts for bail, which are often forfeited as some choose to flee the country in the knowledge that they are very unlikely to receive a fair trial and just verdict. Those awaiting trial who flee the country are tried in absentia. Many will face a gruelling legal process, and until their case is heard, which could take several years, their lives are in limbo.

Therefore, the majority of the Christians arrested in the last few years and later released, either after finishing their prison sentences or temporarily released on bail, received severe warnings and threats against any further Christian activity. Once released, they are closely monitored, and risk re-arrest and imprisonment if they engage in or are suspected of engaging in any Christian activity.

The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a signatory, states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice and freedom either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Based on Article 18, religious minority groups including those who have changed their religious affiliation should not be denied the right, in community with others or in private, to practise their religious beliefs or use their own language to worship. Therefore, Iran should be held accountable to uphold its obligations under its own constitution as well as international law (Article 18) to improve religious freedom and belief in the country for all peoples of Iran.

The UK should call for the acquittal of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Mrs. Shamiram Issavi, Mr. Hadi Asgari and Mr. Amin Afshar-Naderi. Iran should be pressured to change unjust and oppressive policies against religious minorities.

UK involvement

A question was raised by Mr. Gregory Campbell MP, on 11 July 2017, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office suggesting the FCO issue a statement to the Iranian government regarding the treatment of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari.

The FCO responded on the 17 July 2017, saying:

The Government is aware of reports regarding Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari. The Government notes the worrying trend of harassment of Christians in Iran and strongly condemns any mistreatment of religious minorities in the country. We regularly raise our concerns about the human rights situation in Iran both in London and Tehran. We call on Iran to cease harassment of religious minorities and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians.

Revolutionary Court trials ‘unfair in almost all cases’ – jailed rights lawyer

Revolutionary Court trials ‘unfair in almost all cases’ – jailed rights lawyer

Jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has published an open letter from Evin Prison claiming the verdicts issued by Iran’s Revolutionary Courts “violate the principles of a fair trial … in almost all cases”.

Nasrin Sotoudeh (Facebook)

Nasrin, who was sentenced last month to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes on a variety of charges, said “a large number of political and civil activists and followers of other faiths confront the dangers of such unfair trials” and that the “trend is so extensive and systematic that many of the accused are overlooked”.

“In these trials, the lawyer is prevented from attending the trial; the court does not require security agencies to submit any reasons or documents; the accused is not given enough time for defence. This is the practice of the courts, which issue several-decades-long sentences for people, and now many of them are lingering in prison for years under difficult circumstances,” she wrote on her official Facebook page (in Farsi) on Friday.

Nasrin, who is 55 years old, was arrested in June 2018 and informed that she had been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison.

The charges against her at that time included allegedly helping to form “house churches”, even though fellow lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi told Radio Farda “there are no articles or notes in the Islamic Penal Code that ban launching home churches, let alone assisting others to do so”.

“However, if such a move leads to ‘apostasy’,” he added, “it might be counted as abetting a crime. 

“Meanwhile, for every charge, there should be at least evidence along with witnesses who testify that Sotoudeh has been practically active in assisting people to launch home churches or has called upon others to do so and has invested in such activities. [Such evidence and witnesses are missing,] therefore Sotoudeh cannot be charged with it.”

Nasrin previously served three years of a six-year sentence for “acting against national security”. On her release in September 2013, her license to practise law was revoked, though it was later reinstated after she staged a sit-in outside the Iranian Bar Association. 

In her letter on Friday, Nasrin said that she had been convicted of seven charges:

  1. Association and collusion to sabotage national security – 7.5 years
  2. Membership in LEGAM campaign (an anti-death penalty movement) – 7.5 years
  3. Public activities against the state – 1.5 years
  4. Encouraging corruption and prostitution – 12 years
  5. Appearing in public without religious covering of hair – 74 lashes
  6. Publication of falsities to distort public opinion – 3 years + 74 lashes
  7. Disruption of public order and calm – 2 years

“So, the verdicts issued against me amount to a total of 38.5 years plus 148 lashes of the whip,” she wrote.

Nasrin’s work has gained her international acclaim, including being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2012.

Amnesty International has been among the rights groups that have campaigned for her release, calling her a “prisoner of conscience” targeted for “her work as a lawyer defending women who have peacefully protested against compulsory veiling”.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, specifically mentioned Nasrin’s case last month as he highlighted the “worrying patterns of intimidation, arrest, prosecution, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, and labour rights activists in Iran”, which he said signalled an “increasingly severe State response to protests and strikes in the country”.