‘Appeasement is approval,’ says Iranian Christian rights activist

‘Appeasement is approval,’ says Iranian Christian rights activist

An Iranian Christian convert now living in Sweden who has helped organise numerous protests over the past year has warned Western governments that “to appease Iran is to give them your seal of approval”.

More than 45 Iranian Christians joined the latest protest yesterday outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, this time to mark the annual World Day Against the Death Penalty.

And co-organiser Amir Hossein Jaafari told Article18 that the protesters were honouring the sacrifice of Pastor Hossein Soodmand, a fellow Iranian Christian convert who was hanged for his “apostasy” in 1990.

Mr Jaafari added: “We are also seeking the complete removal of the death penalty from the Iranian judicial system.”

While Pastor Soodmand remains the only Iranian Christian to have been officially executed since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, several others have received the death sentence only to see it overturned after an international outcry; at least seven others have been killed extrajudicially; and many more have been threatened with the death sentence by their interrogators and judges.

The “crime” of apostasy has never been codified in Iranian law, but death sentences can still be prescribed under Islamic law (Sharia), which Iran’s penal code allows to take precedence in areas of ambiguity.

In practice, however, the death sentence is used predominantly as a tool of intimidation against Christians and other prisoners of conscience, to force them to cooperate, “confess”, and stop their activities.

A photo of Pastor Hossein Soodmand is held aloft at yesterday’s protest.

As Amnesty International put it, the death penalty in Iran is “increasingly used as a weapon of political repression against protesters, dissidents and members of minority groups”.

Iran has for many years been second only to China in its number of executions, and last year alone carried out 246, more than twice as many as the next highest country, Egypt.

Dr Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights, told Article18: “Like in any dictatorship, the purpose of the death penalty in the Islamic Republic is not to reduce crime, but to hold on to power by spreading fear in society.

“Increasing the political cost of executions is the only way to reduce the number when dealing with such a regime. This is done by raising awareness, sensitising the public to the death penalty, and creating international pressure.”

He added: “If we look at execution trends over the last four decades, we see that the number of executions has generally decreased and the Islamic Republic has gradually retreated. They cannot execute political prisoners like they did in the 1980s; they cannot stone people to death for adultery; they had to reduce the number of drug-related executions; and we see fewer public executions. Iran is still one of the world’s top executioners, but I believe that sustained civil campaigns and international pressure could lead to further limitations in the use of the death penalty.”

The execution of political activists and opponents of the regime has led to widespread public condemnation in recent years, such as after the executions of journalist Ruhollah Zam and wrestler Navid Afkari.

But there are fears that executions could rise again under the stewardship of new president Ebrahim Raisi and his fellow hardliner Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who took over from Raisi as head of the judiciary.