Case Studies

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad

Case referenced by

Article 18, Middle East Concern, The Christian Post, World Watch Monitor, Anglican Ink, Open Doors, International Christian Concern, CBN, Jerusalem Post

Summary

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad initially faced four charges after his arrest on 25 January 2019: “propaganda against the state”, “apostasy”, “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs” and “membership of a group hostile to the regime”. The charge of apostasy was later dropped, but he was convicted of the other three charges. The charge of “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs” was overturned on appeal, but the other two convictions were upheld. 

Case in full

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad was arrested at his home in Shiraz on 25 January 2019 by plainclothes officers claiming to be from the Ministry of Intelligence, who rang his doorbell at 3am, then slapped him in the face when he answered, before dragging him away. 

They took him back to his home five hours later to search his belongings and confiscate many of his personal items, including his laptop, mobile phone, Christian books and daily notebook.

The officials said that they had a search warrant for his premises, but did not allow Ismaeil to see it.

After he had been taken away, family members attempted to contact the authorities to find out where he had been taken. They were told that Ismaeil was not being held in any of their detention centres, so they should register him as a missing person.

Ismaeil was eventually able to contact his family, but only to report that he did not know where he was being held, nor on what charges.

He was released on 31 January 2019 on a bail of 10 million tomans (around $800). The authorities initially demanded five times more but agreed to the smaller sum after he protested.

During his detention, Ismaeil was given little food, held in solitary confinement next to a noisy ventilator that made it impossible to sleep, and interrogated for 14 hours a day.

He was insulted harshly, repeatedly ordered to revert to Islam, and asked why he had evangelised – even though his interrogators found no evidence of their claims during a thorough search of his house and belongings.

At a Revolutionary Court hearing in Shiraz on 22 October 2019, the judge asked Ismaeil two questions: whether he was an apostate; and whether he had insulted Islam.

He denied both, saying that he had never insulted Islam and that different ayatollahs had different opinions over the question of apostasy.

In response, the judge decreed that his bail would be increased from 10 million to 100 million tomans (around $9,000).

When Ismaeil said he had no way of paying such an amount, the judge said a friend could act as a guarantor. Two of Ismaeil’s friends then provided payslips to the court as proof that they could cover the amount if required. 

Ismaeil was summoned to court again on the morning of 30 October, but the hearing was later postponed to the morning of Saturday, 2 November.

At the 2 November hearing, the judge ruled that the case against him regarding “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” was “applicable”, because he had created a Telegram channel in which he had “promoted evangelical Christianity”. However, the charge of apostasy was dropped.

A hearing on 8 January 2020 at Branch 105 of the Civil Court in Shiraz focused solely on the charge of “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs in the cyberspace”, for which Ismaeil was found guilty because he had reacted with a smiley-face emoji to a message that had been sent to his phone, which poked fun at the ruling Iranian clerics.

On 11 January 2020, Ismaeil was sentenced to three years in prison under Article 513 of the Islamic Penal Code, which provides for a punishment of between one and five years in prison.

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, said the sentence was a “disproportionate reaction to something so ordinary.

“The other charges that Ismaeil is facing, as well as the now-quashed charge of apostasy, related to his conversion to Christianity. This may reveal the real reason why he’s been charged for something that most ordinary Iranians do on a daily basis.”

Ismaeil’s defence team had pointed out that he was not even the originator of the joke.

Ismaeil’s family were initially hopeful of better news, after the charges of apostasy, for which he could have faced the death sentence, were dropped.

After another court hearing at a Revolutionary Court on 27 February 2020, Ismaeil was sentenced to an additional two years in prison for “membership of a group hostile to the regime”, under Article 499 of the Islamic Penal Code, which provides for three months to five years’ imprisonment.

The court document detailed that the “hostile” group in question espoused “Evangelical Zionist Christianity”.

Article18’s Mansour Borji said that given that Ismaeil is a member of the Anglican Church, this shows that “such blanket labelling is inaccurately applied to any Christian arrested for their religious activities, as the revolutionary courts try to justify their violations of religious freedom”.

The judge added that his ruling was based on a report by the intelligence branch of Iran’s military, though no details were given of what this evidence entailed.

Mr Borji noted that it was “odd and somewhat rare” that the military were involved in a case relating to a civilian with no links to the military.

The judge at the 1st Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, Seyed Mahmood Sadati, later ordered a retrial, which took place on 9 May 2020.

Ismaeil was informed of the verdict a week later: he had been reconvicted of membership of a “Zionist Evangelical Christian” group “hostile to the regime” and convicted of the additional charge of “propaganda against the state”.

Judge Sadati called for the 9 May retrial himself, saying he had been unhappy with his initial verdict and wanted to make some “corrections”, giving hope to Ismaeil and his family that the judgment may be quashed.

However, despite the protestations of his lawyer, Farshid Rofoogaran, that Ismaeil had “in no way, shape or form been a member of any hostile organisation”, he was given an even stiffer sentence.

In his ruling, Judge Sadati referred to the findings of the intelligence agents of Iranian armed forces, who were responsible for his arrest, and Ismaeil’s alleged “admission” of guilt – for acknowledging that a Bible verse from the book of Philippians had been sent to his phone by a Christian satellite TV channel. 

A printout of the verse was shown to him in the court, which he acknowledged, after which he was dismissed from the room. 

His lawyer, Mr Rofoogaran, proceeded to argue that the court had not been presented “with one single reason, piece of evidence or document that would justify the verdict issued”.

He added that the indictment was “very vague” and “lacked any supporting statement”, and that Ismaeil’s only “crime” had been to receive a message from a Christian satellite television channel; he hadn’t even forwarded it to anyone.

“Even if those groups that have Telegram or WhatsApp channels are accepted as ‘hostile’,” Mr Rofoogaran said, “receiving messages without forwarding them to anyone else does not constitute membership of that organisation.”

Mr Rofoogaran went on to criticise the way the case had been handled, noting that the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” had not been observed.

Article18’s Mansour Borji pointed out that “Ismaeil’s arrest took place without any prior evidence being found against him. Instead, the intelligence agents went through his personal belongings and tried to dig up evidence against him. The charge that didn’t stick they had to drop; the charges that remain have no legal basis.”

On 5 July 2020, Ismaeil’s three-year sentence for “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs” was overturned on appeal. However, six days later Ismaeil was informed that he had lost his appeals against the two remaining prison sentences and therefore faces at least two years in prison.

Ismaeil converted to Christianity nearly 40 years ago and has since been regularly harassed by Iran’s security forces, despite Iran’s own constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, guaranteeing freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choosing and to propagate that religion.

Around 10 years after Ismaeil’s conversion, an attempt was made on his life, which he only narrowly survived. 

Ismaeil’s late wife, Mahvash, also converted to Christianity, in 1999, but when she died, in 2013, Ismaeil was prevented from burying her in a Christian cemetery, despite a letter from the head of the Anglican Church in Iran, Bishop Azad Marshall, stating that Mahvash was a “committed member of the Anglican Church in Iran, who had been baptised and confirmed”.

Instead, her body was taken to a Muslim cemetery, where she was buried following a Muslim ceremony in the presence of security guards, with only five family members allowed to attend.

Mahvash had also been interrogated on numerous occasions during the first years after her husband’s conversion. She was also fired from her job.

In August 2019, Ismaeil and Mahvash’s daughter, Mahsa, who is now living as a refugee in the USA with her husband Nathan, told Article18 she believed her father was being targeted as a result of her and her husband’s work as pastors ministering to Iranians over the Internet.

Authorisation 

Article18 has been authorised by Ismaeil to conduct advocacy on his behalf. The charges against him 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. He has committed no crime, nor is he seeking to act in any way against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The violations against his religious freedom and human rights is solely a result of exercising his 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 Ismaeil’s immediate acquittal.
  • 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.