Decade-long prison sentence for Iranian Christian reduced to two years

Decade-long prison sentence for Iranian Christian reduced to two years

A Court of Appeal in Tehran has cut a decade-long prison sentence for a Christian down to two years after a retrial. 

Joseph Shahbazian, an Iranian-Armenian Christian who was imprisoned for holding church services in his home, has spent nine months in Evin prison, Iran’s most notorious jail.

Now, following a retrial on Wednesday, 24 May, the 21st Branch of Tehran’s Court of Appeal has reduced Joseph’s 10-year sentence to two years.

The court did not find “enough evidence to determine the maximum punishment specified in Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code”, which relates to the organisation of groups that “threaten national security”.

A two-year sentence of exile in a remote province in the southeast of Iran following Joseph’s incarceration has also been thrown out. 

Mansour Borji, advocacy director at Article18, said: “It is great that both the Supreme and Appeal courts have acknowledged the unmerited and cruel maximum punishment that was handed down to Mr Shahbazian. 

“However, it is disappointing that they have failed to recognise and uphold his rights as a citizen to worship peacefully and freely without the fear of cohesion and prosecution. 

“Joseph has not done anything illegal to deserve two years in prison. 

“Praying or taking part in a Bible study with other Christians is every citizen’s right according to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasises that ‘everyone has the right to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance either alone or in community with others and in public or private’.”

Coordinated raids of house-churches

Joseph was arrested alongside more than 35 other Christians in a coordinated operation by intelligence agents belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard over two days and across three cities – Tehran, Karaj and Malayer – in the summer of 2020. 

Two years later, Joseph and six others were tried at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, accused of “acting against national security by promoting ‘Zionist’ Christianity” through either leadership or membership of a house-church. 

A month later, in June 2022, Joseph was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the same Revolutionary Court of Tehran.

The 36th Branch of Tehran’s Court of Appeal had confirmed the sentence in August 2022, and Joseph was summoned to Branch 1 of Evin Prosecutor’s Office that month to begin his sentence.

However, in February 2023, the 9th Branch of the Supreme Court found the initial 10-year sentence lacked evidence to show that Joseph led a house-church, and ruled Joseph should be afforded a retrial. According to the Supreme Court, “no reason, evidence, or document ha[d] been presented on the mentioned person’s leadership and his conduct of the group” and “therefore, determining the maximum punishment [wa]s not reasonable and faces judicial problems”.

10-year sentence reduced to two years

In the latest update, on 24 May, the 21st Branch of the Tehran Appeal Court found there was “no sufficient reason for choosing the maximum punishment”. 

It therefore reduced the sentence to two years, in line with Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code which states: “Anyone, with any ideology, who establishes or directs a group, society, or branch, inside or outside the country, with any name or title, that constitutes more than two individuals and aims to perturb the security of the country, if not considered as mohareb [an enemy of God], shall be sentenced to two to 10 years’ imprisonment.”

Upon his release from jail, Joseph will still face a two-year ban from membership in any political or social group, and will be prohibited from travelling abroad for two years.

Additionally, he will have to register his presence on a quarterly basis with police.

Family submits property deeds to meet bail demands

Shortly after Joseph’s initial detention, his family were told they would need to pay three billion tomans (around $150,000) for his bail – double the record demanded to secure the release of an Iranian Christian prisoner of conscience.

To pay, the family was forced to forfeit two property deeds – one for the Shahbazian family home, and the other belonging to Joseph’s elderly mother.

However, the total value of both properties, combined with 300 million tomans they deposited in cash, was still short of the required bail.

Seven weeks into his detention, on 18 August 2020, Joseph’s wife and son were finally able to visit him for the first time.

It remained unclear where he was being held, as he was driven, blindfolded, to the courthouse where they met and had been blindfolded every time he had been let out of his cell.

Eventually, on 22 August 2020, Joseph was released on bail after nearly two months in detention, after his family submitted property deeds to cover a reduced bail amount of two billion tomans (around $100,000).