Case Studies

Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh

Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh

Left to right: Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh

Case referenced by

Article18, Premier Christian News, IranWire, Iran News Wire, HRANA, International Christian Concern, CSW, Middle East Concern.

Summary

Christian converts Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh are the second group of Christian converts to have been convicted under the amended Article 500 of the penal code, for “engaging in propaganda and educational activities for deviant beliefs contrary to the holy Sharia”, and “connections with foreign leaders”. They have been sentenced to five years in prison.

Case in full

Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh, all members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran” in Rasht, were first arrested on the evening of 5 September 2021, and transferred to an unknown location.

It emerged later that all three had been taken to a detention centre belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and placed in solitary confinement.

But while Ahmad and Morteza were transferred to Lakan Prison on 18 September, then released on bail on 22 September, there were concerns about Ayoob, who was not heard from until a month after his arrest.

Finally, on 3 October, Ayoob was also released from Lakan Prison on bail of 400 million tomans (around $15,000).

During their detention, the families of the three Christians were threatened by IRGC intelligence agents for publicising information about the arrests of their loved ones, while at least one family member and several other house-church members were summoned for questioning.

Meanwhile, the three men were accused of “acting against national security”, while their interrogators repeatedly referred to the recently amended Articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, relating respectively to membership or organisation of “anti-state” groups, and “propaganda” against the regime.

They were also treated very harshly by their interrogators, who ridiculed them for their beliefs and forced them to listen to broadcasts of Quranic verses for at least three hours every day.

On 25 January 2022, at the 4th Branch of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Rasht, the three men were officially charged with “engaging in propaganda and educational activities for deviant beliefs contrary to the holy Sharia”, and “connections with foreign leaders”.

The court document, signed by prosecutor Hassan Rajabi, specifically referenced the trio’s membership of the “Church of Iran”, and went on to label them “Satan-worshippers who believe in the end of the world, the divisions between sects and races, the return of the Jews to their promised land, and the superiority of this race [Jews] to others, which proves the claim that they are working for foreign elements”.

And while this denomination has non-traditional views regarding the Trinity, much of the rest of its teachings are entirely in keeping with the wider Church, making allegations of “Satan worship” seem an obvious attempt to vilify the group and lessen public sympathy for them.

Article18’s advocacy director Mansour Borji commented: “This kind of labelling of a religious group, whatever their belief, in an official court document, shows a clear disregard by the Iranian authorities to their responsibilities as signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights to freedom of belief for all citizens, whatever those beliefs are.

“Even the wording of Article 500 is at odds with Iran’s responsibilities in this regard, as it is clearly not the state’s job to decide whether an individual’s beliefs are ‘normal’ or not, let alone to prosecute them for these beliefs.”

On 17 February 2022, the three men denied all the charges against them as they gave their last defence at Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court of Rasht, saying they were “just Christians worshipping according to the Bible” and “have not engaged in any propaganda against the regime or any action against national security”.

They also denied receiving any funds from abroad, while their lawyer, Iman Soleimani, told the court the accusations were based only on the information provided by intelligence agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and nothing else. 

The case was then sent back to the prosecutor’s office to decide whether there was any grounds for a conviction.

On 9 April 2022, the Christians and their lawyer were summoned to return to Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court of Rasht, and informed that they had been sentenced to five years in prison and fined 18 million tomans (around $750).

They lawyer complained that his clients had been convicted only on the basis of the claims of intelligence agents of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); that the judge, Mohammad Hossein Hosseinpour, had also taken on the role of accuser; and that there was no legal justification for the sentences, as his clients’ only “crime” had been to meet together for Christian prayer and worship.

A religious assembly, Mr Soleimani said, could not be considered an “action against the state”, while although Iran’s constitution forbids “inquisition” into a person’s beliefs, the judge’s very first question had been about their beliefs, and their confirmation of them drew an angry response. Their beliefs were later also referenced in the verdict.

The three Christians have decided to appeal against the sentences, despite being told by the judge that if they accepted them and “remained quiet”, their sentences would be reduced by one-quarter, and they may also be more favourably treated in prison, such as being eligible in time for furlough, conditional release, or freed to serve their sentences at home with an electronic tag.

However, the Christians maintain that they have done nothing wrong, and therefore are not willing to simply remain quiet and accept their lot.

Mr Soleimani, writing on Twitter, said: “I’ve been involved with this case from the beginning, and volumes of unspoken stories could be written regarding the shortcomings of how the arrest and preliminary investigations took place, the illegal proceedings in the Revolutionary Court in Rasht, and even the way my defendants were wrongfully condemned for someone else’s interview about them with Iran International.”

In another post, he wrote: “Unfortunately, in political and ‘security’ cases, the judges are under a lot of pressure from the arresting agents, and some independent judges have openly stated this in the presence of lawyers and defendants, and complained about this situation and the fact that they can also face charges themselves if they do not comply.”

Mr Soleimani added that the judge in Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob’s case had even indicated to him that he was under pressure to give the Christians the maximum possible sentences.

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, commented: “The verdict in this case is typical of arbitrary sentences, stating only that the individuals were convicted because they had remained ‘persistent in their beliefs’. This is clearly a violation of the Iranian constitution, and contrary to the repeated claims of regime officials that ‘no-one is imprisoned because of their beliefs’. The conviction is also based only on the reports of interrogators – nothing more – and is therefore entirely devoid of any legal justification. The proceedings in this case also clearly debunk Iranian officials’ claims, repeated constantly to international media, that the judiciary is independent.”

On 8 May 2022, Ahmad and Ayoob were re-arrested alongside two other Church of Iran members, Behnam Akhlaghi and Babak Hosseinzadeh, and taken to an IRGC detention centre. Morteza had not been at home during the concurrent raids on their homes, but was detained two days later. Ahmad, Morteza and Ayoob remain in detention at the time of writing.

When their families went to 4th Branch of the Prosecutor’s Office in Rasht to ask about their situation, they were told their loved one’s appeals against their five-year sentences had been rejected, even though the official hearing had yet to take place. Their appeals were officially rejected a month later.

Then on 11 July 2022, they were told they must return to court on 19 July 2022 to face a second trial on identical charges.

They gave their second “final defence” via video link from Lakan Prison on 5 July 2022, stating that they wanted to be “dealt with according to the constitution”, under which Christianity is a recognised minority faith.

“We are Christians,” they said, “and we reserve the right to have a place for prayer and collective worship.”

They again denied engaging in “any activities contrary to the country’s laws”.

Their second trial on the same charges will take place on 19 July 2022 at the same court that sentenced them the first time, the 2nd Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Rasht. 

Recommendations

Article18 requests that the international community and Christians worldwide: 

  • Call for the convictions to be immediately overturned.
  • Call for the swift application of due process in the cases of all who are detained and/or awaiting charges, trials, sentences or appeal hearings on account of their Christian faith and activities in Iran. 
  • Encourage Western countries to prioritise human rights in negotiations with Iran, especially freedom of religion or belief, and urge the government of Iran to recognise all minority-faith adherents, including converts to Christianity, as full citizens before the law, enjoying their full human rights.
  • Call the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable for failing to uphold its international and constitutional commitments to protect the freedom of Christians in its territories. Closing churches, appropriating church property, arresting church leaders and threatening churchgoers are violations of freedom of religion or belief, as prescribed in Article 18 of the ICCPR, to which Iran is a signatory, without reservation, and therefore legally bound to uphold. Meanwhile, Article 13 of Iran’s Constitution states that Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognised religious minorities, who are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies. And Article 23 says “investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” 

Background

The controversial amendments to articles 499 and 500 – relating respectively to membership or organisation of “anti-security groups”, and “propaganda” against the state or in support of opposition groups – were signed into law in February 2021.

ARTICLE 19, an organisation dedicated to the protection of freedom of speech, called the changes to Article 500 in particular “a full-on attack on the right to freedom of religion and belief”.

The amended version of Article 500 provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for “any deviant educational or proselytising activity” by members of so-called “sects” that “contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” through “mind-control methods and psychological indoctrination” or “making false claims or lying in religious and Islamic spheres, such as claiming divinity”.

The amendment to Article 499 provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for “anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognised under the Constitution with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society or with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow”.

In both cases, the punishment can be doubled to up to 10 years’ imprisonment if the groups in question have received either financial or organisational help from outside the country.

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, called the amendments “a catastrophe” and “disservice to justice”.

“These amendments will bring more ambiguity to an already ambiguous set of charges,” he said, “and decrease the chance that a judge may act in a more tolerant way towards house-church members, by providing greater scope within the law to bring charges on these vaguely-defined grounds.

“This news will be celebrated by Iran’s intelligence agencies, who are always in the background in court cases against Christians, pressuring judges to impose the harshest possible sentence.”

Human rights lawyer Hossein Ahmadiniaz previously warned that the bill, if passed, would “facilitate the repression and punishment of Christian converts and others belonging to unrecognised religious groups”.

“The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government,” he said. “But in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognised minorities.”

Meanwhile, Hamid Gharagozloo from the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR) cautioned: “By making it a crime to be part of a sect, and banning a group as a ‘sect’, it gives them an open hand to crush any form of uprising or dissatisfaction with the government… Any form of defiance will be labelled as a ‘sect’, and then it will be punishable by law.”

In June 2021, three Christian converts from Karaj, Amin Khaki, Milad Goodarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi, became the first Christians to be sentenced under the new amendments. They were initially given the maximum sentences of five years for “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam”, but the sentences were reduced on appeal to three years. The three men are now serving these sentences.