UN experts call for release of all prisoners of conscience

UN experts call for release of all prisoners of conscience

Rajaei Shahr Prison, Karaj (Photo: Ensie & Matthias / Flickr / CC)

A group of UN human rights experts have called on Iran to release all prisoners of conscience, in line with its obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In a joint statement on Friday, the experts welcomed the reported release of around 100,000 prisoners on short-term furloughs, but noted that “most” prisoners of conscience remain detained, including some who are “at great risk from COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions”.

They noted that Iranian Health Ministry officials have said that one person dies from COVID-19 every 10 minutes in Iran.

The experts highlighted the cases of three human rights defenders and four dual nationals, who have either been rejected temporary release or have not received a response to their request. They added that five of the individuals had pre-existing health issues, and that two are over 60 years old, thereby “heightening the serious risk to their health if infected”. 

While recognising Iran’s reported struggles to access medical supplies as a result of US sanctions, the experts said Iran’s prisons have “long-standing hygiene, overcrowding and healthcare problems“.

They added that Iran has a duty of care to its prisoners as a signatory to the ICCPR, “including the right of persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent dignity, and the right to life”.

The experts expressed concern over reports of prisoners “sharing cells with people suffering common COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and coughing”, and of hygiene products being “either non-existent or restricted, and physical distancing measures not enforced”.

They concluded by calling for an “independent and impartial review of all cases of suspected arbitrary detention”, and for the “immediate and permanent release of all individuals found to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty”.

What’s happened to the Christian prisoners?

Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakteri, Amin Khahi and Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari have been released from their sentences.

Iran has released seven Iranian Christians in the past two months – most on short-term furloughs, but in some cases these have since been made permanent. 

Most recently, on Easter Sunday, Christian convert Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhtari, 36, was told she would not need to return to Tehran’s Evin Prison to complete her one-year sentence for “propaganda against the regime” – related to her membership of a house-church.

Fellow Christian converts Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari, 62, and Amin Khaki, 36, were also told earlier this month that they will not need to return to prison. They were serving sentences of 12 and 14 months, respectively, for house-church membership.

Fatemeh and Amin had completed half of their sentences, while Mahrokh still had two-thirds of her sentence to go.

Previously, two other Christian converts who cannot be identified were given temporary leave from prison, and Iranian-Assyrian Christian Ramiel Bet-Tamraz was released after serving a little over half of his four-month sentence.

Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, 21, was also among those temporarily released on bail in February, but she appeared in court last week and is now awaiting sentencing on charges relating to her alleged participation in January protests following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane.

Christians still in prison

Clockwise from top-left: Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie, Mohammad Reza Omidi, Yousef Nadarkhani.

At least 11 Christians remain in prison, on charges related to the peaceful practice of their faith, while several others are awaiting verdicts in long-running court cases.

The 11 imprisoned Christians include four whose convictions are currently under review – Yousef Nadarkhani, 42, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 46, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie, 36, and Nasser Navard Gol Tapeh, 58. 

Two of them, Saheb and Nasser, have suffered health issues, so their families are especially concerned about them.

The other Christians still detained are Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, who was sentenced alongside Yousef, Saheb and Yohan; Abdolreza (Matthias) Ali-Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, and Behnam Akhlaghi, who recently lost their appeals against five-year sentences; and Majidreza Souzanchi.

Four more Christian converts – Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammad Vafadar – are currently on bail, awaiting summonses to serve their own five-year sentences, having lost their appeals alongside Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Babak, Mehdi and Behnam.

Meanwhile, court cases are ongoing for several other Christians, including Iranian-Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, his wife Shamiram, and three Christian converts – Hadi Asgari, Amin Afshar-Naderi and Kavian Fallah-Mohamamdi, whose next appeal hearing has been scheduled for 1 June.

For an up-to-date list of all known court proceedings involving Iranian Christians, see our Prisoners List.