Illegally detained pastor returns to prison after first furlough in four years

Illegally detained pastor returns to prison after first furlough in four years

Arbitrarily detained pastor Yousef Nadarkhani must return to Tehran’s Evin Prison today after enjoying his first visit home in nearly four years.

The pastor, once sentenced to death for “apostasy”, has been serving a 10-year sentence – later reduced to six years – since July 2018 for “acting against national security by propagating house-churches and promoting ‘Zionist’ Christianity”.

On 15 April he was given his very first break from prison, a week’s furlough on bail of 300 million tomans (around $11,500), which was later extended by a further seven days, for which he was eligible having never previously taken any leave.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which this week recommended to the State Department that Iran continue to be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” for “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”, welcomed Yousef’s furlough but called for his permanent release.

In a statement posted at the start of the furlough, USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza said: “Pastor Nadarkhani’s furlough is a welcome development following years of detention and a serious illness in Evin Prison. 

“We call on Iran to fully release Pastor Nadarkhani and all other individuals serving prison sentences on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

Yousef was one of four Christian prisoners of conscience to develop symptoms of Covid-19 after an outbreak in their prison ward, Hall 8 of Ward 8, in February.

At that time, Article18 reported how Yousef, who had for years declined any opportunities for furlough until all his fellow Christian prisoners of conscience had themselves received such opportunity, was then denied his very first request.

Now, finally, he has had the chance to return home and spend two precious weeks in Rasht with his wife, Tina, and sons Danial and Youeil. 

But Yousef must now leave them once again and return to prison, despite calls from USCIRF and the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, among others, for his permanent release.

The UN Working Group ruled back in November 2020 that Yousef’s detention was “arbitrary” on four counts: lack of legal basis for detention; detention resulting from “legitimate exercise” of freedoms; lack of fair trial and due process; and “discrimination based on religious beliefs”. 

USCIRF meanwhile said in its recent statement that the charges against him were “false”, and noted how Yousef had been beaten and one of his sons tasered by the agents who took him to prison four years ago. 

The commission further noted that Yousef’s sons have been denied education during his incarceration, prompting Yousef to undertake a three-week hunger strike.

Article18 joins USCIRF and the UN Working Group in calling on Iran to immediately and unconditionally release Yousef and all other prisoners held on religious grounds, in line with its obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s faith, and to share it with others.