Case Studies

Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar

Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar

Clockwise from top-left: Mohammed Vafadar, Kamal Naamanian, Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, 
Behnam Akhlaghi, Mehdi Khatibi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Shahrooz Eslamdoost and Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad. 
(Middle East Concern)

Case referenced by

Article 18, Middle East Concern, World Watch Monitor, CSW, Open Doors

Summary

Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar – all members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran” in the northern city of Rasht – were arrested during raids on their homes and house-churches within the space of a month in January and February 2019. They were sentenced in October 2019 to five years in prison for “actions against national security”. Their appeals were rejected in February 2020.

Case in full

Hossein Kadivar and Khalil Dehghanpour were detained following a raid on the “house-church” meeting they were leading on 29 January 2019; Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad was arrested on 10 February 2019 during a raid on his home; Kamal Naamanian, Mohammed Vafadar and Shahrooz Eslamdoost were arrested at a “house-church” gathering on 15 February; Babak Hosseinzadeh and Mehdi Khatibi were arrested at two separate “house churches” on 23 February; and Behnam Akhlaghi was summoned to the offices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) that same day.

The nine men were each helping to lead services in the absence of their imprisoned pastor Yousef Nadarkhani

Two of them – Abdolreza and Kamal – had been arrested before for their Christian activities.

Seven of the men – all except Abdolreza and Shahrooz – were released on bail in March 2019, after depositing the equivalent of $13,000 each. Abdolreza and Shahrooz were detained.

In July 2019, Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak and Mehdi had their bail increased tenfold after insisting upon being defended by their own lawyer. 

Judge Mohammed Moghisheh, who has earned the nickname the “Judge of Death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience, rejected their choice of lawyer and demanded they were defended by a lawyer of the court’s choosing.

When they refused, the judge increased their bail amount to the equivalent of $130,000 each, and, being unable and unprepared to pay such an amount, they were transferred to Ward 4 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where they have remained.

The other four decided to defend themselves and were therefore released on their pre-existing bail (the equivalent of $13,000 each) until their next hearing, when the judge accused them of promoting Zionism and said the Bible had been falsified.

On 13 October, all nine men were sentenced to five years in prison for “acting against national security”, after a hearing on 23 September. 

Their appeals were rejected following a hearing on 25 February 2020.

Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak and Mehdi have been in Evin Prison since July 2019, when they were unable to pay the high bail demanded from them after they insisted on being defended by their own lawyer.

The other four men, Hossein, Khalil, Kamal and Mohammed, began serving their sentences on 1 June 2020. They had been awaiting summonses since their appeals were rejected in February.

They had gone to the Revolutionary Court in Rasht a day ahead of their summons deadline of 2 June to ask for a few more days with their families before beginning their sentences. Instead, they were placed in handcuffs and held for five days, before being transferred directly to Evin Prison on Saturday, 6 June, to begin their five-year terms.

Authorisation 

Article18 has been authorised by Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak, Mehdi, Khalil, Hossein, Kamal and Mohammed to conduct advocacy on their behalf. The charges against them are entirely unfounded and void of any legal basis. They are instead a reflection of the Islamic Republic’s security-oriented approach towards religious minorities. None of them have committed any crime, nor are they seeking to act in any way against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The violations against their religious freedom and human rights is solely a result of exercising their Christian faith. 

Recommendations 

Article18 petitions the international community to: 

  • Urge the Iranian government to uphold its obligations under its own constitution and international law, including provisions for freedom of religion or belief contained within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a state party, without reservation.
  • Call for the immediate acquittal and release of Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar.
  • 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. 
  • Support Professor Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, in monitoring Iran’s compliance with international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief. 

Background

There has been a significant increase in human rights violations in Iran in recent years, and particularly in the persecution of religious minorities, principally of Christians from the Iranian house-church movement. 

Ethnic Christian communities (Assyrian and Armenian) are permitted a degree of freedom to worship, although it is illegal for these churches to conduct services in Persian (the national language of Iran and the common language of converts). 

Bibles and other Christian literature are also illegal in Persian and those found in possession of such materials, especially in sufficient quantities for distribution, can expect severe treatment and prison sentences. 

Therefore, the growing community of Christian converts are not permitted to attend recognised churches and they have to gather for worship in secret house-churches and risk arrest and imprisonment. 

In the past few years, a number of Christians have been handed down sentences of between 10 and 15 years, charged with offences such as “acting against national security”. These political charges are used to help avoid international outcry at religiously motivated charges such as apostasy.

Those detained or charged often have to obtain and hand over exorbitant amounts for bail, which are often forfeited as some choose to flee the country in the knowledge that they are very unlikely to receive a fair trial and just verdict. 

Those awaiting trial who flee the country are tried in absentia. Many will face a gruelling legal process, and until their case is heard, which could take several years, their lives are in limbo. 

The majority of the Christians arrested in the last few years have been released, either after finishing their prison sentences or temporarily released on bail with severe warnings and threats against any further Christian activity. Once released, they are closely monitored, and risk re-arrest and imprisonment if they engage, or are suspected of engaging, in any Christian activity. 

Iran is 9th on Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian. Article18’s latest annual report names 25 Christians arrested in 2019 and 13 Christians who received sentences of between four months and five years in prison for alleged “actions against national security”.

Criminal cases against many other Christians went unreported, either because no-one raised awareness – arresting authorities frequently issue threats to prevent publicity – or because those involved requested confidentiality. At least 17 Christians were imprisoned at the end of 2019, all serving sentences based on national security-related charges.