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Iran found guilty of ‘arbitrary detention’ of Christian pastor

Iran found guilty of ‘arbitrary detention’ of Christian pastor

The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that the Iranian government is guilty of arbitrarily detaining Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, and called for his immediate release. 

In a damning verdict, the working group found Iran guilty 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” – and called not only for Yousef’s immediate release, but for compensation and “other reparations” to be given to him, and for Iran to conduct an independent investigation into his arbitrary detention and hold accountable those responsible.

The working group’s conclusions were reached in November 2020, but only now made public on the website of Washington DC-based rights group Freedom Now, which lodged the case in April last year in consultation with legal firm Dechert LLP. 

Freedom Now’s petition provided a detailed explanation of all Yousef has been through in the past 15 years, amounting to “harsh persecution” in the view of the working group.

“It is difficult to explain his numerous arrests, detention and imprisonment since December 2006 other than through such religiously motivated persecution,” the working group concluded.

The verdict also included the short response from Iran’s High Council for Human Rights – a subdivision of the judiciary – which confirmed some of the dates on which Mr Nadarkhani was prosecuted, and the charges against him. 

But the judiciary’s rebuttal was dismissed by Freedom Now as a “superficial, summary” description “of the Government’s own version of the entire 10-year history of Mr. Nadarkhani’s criminal prosecutions”, which “ignore [Freedom Now’s] detailed allegations of improper and illegal treatment of Mr. Nadarkhani for his legitimate exercise of his religious and other rights under Iranian and international procedural and substantive law”. 

This is an opinion that seems to have been shared by the working group, which repeatedly reiterates in its judgement that the burden of proof rests with the government, and states that “mere assertions by the Government that lawful procedures have been followed are not sufficient to rebut [Freedom Now’s] allegations”.

Indeed, as part of its decision the working group reminds Iran that it has now been found guilty of violations of its international human rights obligations in about 40 cases over the past 29 years, “indicat[ing] a widespread or systemic arbitrary detention in Iran, which amounts to a serious violation of international law”. 

The working group goes so far as to say that such “widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of the rules of international law may constitute crimes against humanity”.

It refers the case to six rapporteurs – including the rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, and rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman – and calls not only for Yousef’s immediate release and reparations, but also for Iran to report on the results of its investigation into the matter. 

For any “difficulties” Iran has in implementing these recommendations, the working group says it can provide “technical assistance” or even a country visit.

Background

Yousef’s latest imprisonment dates back to July 2018, but as Freedom Now noted in its petition, he has endured a “long history of persecution and prosecution” dating back to 2006, “all resulting from his adherence to Christianity”.

Three other members of Yousef’s house-church were sentenced alongside him in his latest prosecution, one of whom, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie, remains in Tehran’s Evin Prison alongside him, while another, Mohammadreza (Youhan) Omidi, is now in internal exile. Both Saheb and Youhan were also flogged last year for drinking wine with Communion.

Yousef is also due to endure two years’ internal exile in a remote southeastern city following his eventual release – currently set for 2024.

Six UN special rapporteurs, including Mr Shaheed and Mr Rehman, have already expressed concern about Yousef’s case – as well as those of 23 other Iranian Christians – in a letter submitted to the Iranian government in November of last year, but only made public last month. 

The Iranian government again denied any discrimination on religious grounds in its belated response, and instead claimed the Christians in question were guilty of crimes “against national security” and belonged to “enemy groups”.

While the letter was a chance for UN rapporteurs to raise concerns, the working group’s verdict is a direct call to action – not only to Iran, but also to the rapporteurs to whom Yousef’s case has now been specifically referred.