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Anglican Church member given third prison sentence at retrial

Anglican Church member given third prison sentence at retrial

An Iranian Anglican Church member has been reconvicted of membership of a “Zionist Evangelical Christian” group “hostile to the regime” at his retrial, and convicted of the additional charge of “propaganda against the state”.

Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, 65, was informed of the verdict on Saturday, 16 May, following his retrial the previous Saturday at the 1st Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz.

Judge Seyed Mahmood Sadati reached the same verdict as in his initial February ruling by giving Ismaeil a two-year sentence for “membership of a hostile group”, but added an additional year in prison for “propaganda against the state”.

While it is likely that Ismaeil will only have to serve the longer sentence of two years, he also faces an additional three years in prison for his January conviction at a civil court for “insulting Islam”, which he would have to serve separately.

Ismaeil, who is appealing against all three convictions, initially faced four charges after his arrest in January 2019 – also “apostasy”, for which he could have faced the death sentence.

That charge was dropped during a November 2019 hearing, but the other three charges were found “applicable”, although the charge of “propaganda against the state” was not cited in his 27 February conviction, so it appeared that it had been combined with the other charge of “membership of a hostile group”.

Why the retrial?

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 advocacy director, 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.”

Iranian Christians sent to jail, unable to afford bail

Iranian Christians sent to jail, unable to afford bail

Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Kathrin Sajadpour, Moslem Rahimi and one other have been sent to Lakan Prison.

Four Iranian converts to Christianity have been sent to Lakan Prison in the northern city of Rasht, having been unable to afford the bail set for them.

Moslem Rahimi, Ramin Hassanpour and his wife Kathrin Sajadpour, and one other who does not wish to be named were arrested in February for their membership of a house-church. 

They appeared yesterday at Branch 10 of the Revolutionary Court in Rasht, where they were charged. 

The precise nature of the charges against them are as yet unclear, though they are certain to relate to their membership of the house-church, which are deemed by the Iranian regime to be “hostile” entities linked to foreign “Zionist” groups. 

Their bail was set at 500 million tomans each – the equivalent of around $30,000. Being unable to come up with the amount, they were transferred to Lakan Prison.

Ramin and Kathrin have two sons – one of whom is 16 years old and is now staying at home by himself, and the other just seven years old and who has therefore gone to stay with his grandfather.

The arrested Christians are part of the Rasht branch of the “Church of Iran”, a non-Trinitarian group, which has been especially targeted by the Iranian authorities.

Of the 15 Iranian Christians currently detained for their religious activities, 13 are from the “Church of Iran” in Rasht, including pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was once sentenced to death for apostasy.

The other two are from Tehran: Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, 58, and Majidreza Souzanchi.

All apart from Majidreza and the newly detained Christians are in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Majidreza was recently moved from Evin to the Greater Tehran Prison, upon the completion of his two-year sentence for membership of a house-church. He is now serving a separate two-year sentence for theft, a charge he has consistently denied. He was also sentenced to 74 lashes.

The other Christian detainees are Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaei and Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, who are serving 10-year sentences alongside Yousef, and Abdolreza Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi and Behnam Akhlaghi, who are serving five-year sentences.

Nasser, Yousef, Saheb and Yohan are currently awaiting the outcome of their retrials against their 10-year sentences. Their families had hoped to hear news of the verdicts this Monday, but they still anxiously await news, having made several petitions for their loved ones to be released since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

Both Nasser and Saheb have suffered health issues, while Nasser is the oldest of those detained, so their families are especially concerned for them.

Seven other Christians were among the reported 100,000 prisoners released from Iran’s prisons since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak – most on temporary furloughs – but rights groups have called for Iran to go further by releasing all remaining prisoners of conscience.

Mary Mohammadi given suspended prison sentence and lashes

Mary Mohammadi given suspended prison sentence and lashes

Twenty-one-year-old Iranian Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi has been sentenced to three months plus one day in prison, and ten lashes. 

The sentence relates to Mary’s alleged participation in anti-government demonstrations following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January. 

The sentence is suspended for one year, and depends on her future conduct.

Mary has not appealed against the verdict, but commented:

“There was no evidence against me, so I ought to have been acquitted, but instead I was sentenced not only to imprisonment, but also flogging.

“And it should be mentioned that even before the verdict was handed down, I and my family were forced to endure all kinds of torture, none of which was sanctioned by law, and which ought to be considered crimes in themselves. So even if I would have been acquitted, it wouldn’t have been a real acquittal!”

“We have refrained from appealing against the verdict because the appeal courts have turned into confirmation courts!”

During Mary’s court hearing last week, the judge questioned her about her religious views, even though the charges were unrelated to her faith.

He cited no evidence against her, saying that her presence in the area where the rally was taking place was evidence in itself.

Mary’s hearing had previously been scheduled for 2 March, but was postponed due to coronavirus.

After her hearing was rescheduled, Mary tweeted that it would be a “crime against humanity” to send anyone to prison under the current circumstances.

Background

Mary has already spent six months in prison as a result of her participation in house-churches, for which she was convicted of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system”.

In July last year she faced fresh criminal charges relating to her “improper” wearing of hijab. Those charges, which were eventually quashed, were brought against her after she initially went to police to complain of an assault.

Then in December, Mary was kicked out of her Tehran university, without explanation, on the eve of her English-language exams.

Just a few weeks later, on 12 January 2020, Mary was arrested as protests took place in Azadi Square.

There was no word about Mary’s whereabouts for a month, before it was confirmed that she was being held in Qarchak women’s prison, south of the Iranian capital Tehran.

After her arrest, Mary was forced to sit in a yard, for hours, in extremely cold weather and opposite the toilets, and not given any food for 24 hours. 

She was beaten so badly – by male and female officers – that the bruises were visible for three weeks.

Mary was also strip-searched twice by female officers, who told her that if she refused to remove her clothes, they would rip them from her.

Mary is a rare example of a Christian activist still living in Iran. She launched a campaign last year called “Kahma”, fighting for the rights of all Christians – whether from Christian homes, or Christian converts – to be given the right to attend church.

Easter release for Iranian Christian convert

Easter release for Iranian Christian convert

Iranian Christian convert Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhteri has been told she does not need to return to prison to complete her sentence.

The 36-year-old is the third convert in the past few weeks to receive such news, after Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari, 62, and Amin Khaki, 36.

Aylar was initially given temporary leave from Tehran’s Evin Prison on 15 March, as one of tens of thousands of prisoners given furloughs due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Earlier this month, Aylar was later told that her leave was to be extended. However, when she called the prison on Easter Day, Aylar was informed that she had in fact been pardoned, as one of 10,000 prisoners freed on the occasion of the Persian New Year, or Nowruz.

Aylar completed a little over half of her one-year sentence for “propaganda against the regime” – a charge related to her membership of a house-church.

Mahrokh and Amin were also serving sentences – of 12 and 14 months respectively – on the same charge and basis.

Mahrokh was told on 3 April that she would not need to return to prison. Amin was informed three days later. They are still waiting for their bail amounts of 30 million tomans (around $2,000) and 50 million tomans (around $3,000), respectively, to be returned to them.

Mary Mohammadi appears in court

Meanwhile, a court hearing took place today for fellow Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, 21, relating to her alleged participation in the January protests following the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s admission of guilt in the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane.

Mary’s hearing had previously been scheduled for 2 March, but was postponed due to coronavirus.

After her hearing was set for 14 April, Mary tweeted that it would be a “crime against humanity” to send anyone to prison under the current circumstances.

Mary has been charged with “disturbing public order by participating in an illegal rally”.

During the hearing, the judge questioned Mary about her religious views, even though the charges were unrelated to her faith.

Mary has previously spent six months in prison for her membership of a Tehran house-church, and in December she was kicked out of university without explanation.

The judge cited no evidence against her, saying that her presence in the area where the rally was taking place was evidence in itself.

Mary was told to expect the verdict soon, though no precise timescale was given.

Imprisoned Christians

Clockwise from top-left: Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, Saheb Fadaee, Mohammad Reza Omidi, Yousef Nadarkhani.

At least ten Iranian Christians remain in prison, despite repeated calls by rights groups for all prisoners of conscience to be released.

They include four Christians whose convictions are currently being reviewed: Yousef Nadarkhani, 42, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 46, and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaei, 36, and Nasser Navard Gol Tapeh, 58. 

Both Nasser and Saheb have suffered health issues and their families are especially concerned about them. 

The other Christians still detained are Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, who was sentenced alongside Yousef, Saheb and Yohan; and Abdolreza Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, and Behnam Akhlaghi, who recently lost their appeals against five-year sentences.

All of them, apart from Nasser, are from the northern city of Rasht and are part of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”. 

Four more “Church of Iran” members from Rasht – Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar – are currently out on bail, awaiting summonses to serve their own five-year sentences, having lost their appeals alongside Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Babak, Mehdi and Behnam.

Several other Christians are currently enmeshed in ongoing court cases, including Victor Bet-Tamraz, his wife Shamiram and three Christian converts – Amin Afshar-Naderi, Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi – whose appeal hearings have been repeatedly postponed. Their next hearing is scheduled for 1 June.


For an up-to-date list of all known court proceedings involving Iranian Christians, see our Prisoners List.

Christian convert, 62, released from prison, leave extended for two others

Christian convert, 62, released from prison, leave extended for two others

Mahrokh Ghanbari (right) has been told she does not need to return to prison. Aylar Bakhteri (left) and Amin Khaki have had their leave extended by 15 days.

A 62-year-old Iranian woman convert to Christianity has been told she does not need to return to prison to complete her one-year sentence for “propaganda against the regime”.

Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari was one of at least seven Christians among the tens of thousands of Iranian prisoners given temporary leave from prison in the past few weeks, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Mahrokh returned to Shahid Kachooei Prison in her home city of Karaj yesterday, only to be told she was “no longer needed”. 

She is hoping to receive back the 30 million tomans (around $2,000) she deposited for bail in the coming days. 

Mahrokh had served a little over four months of her one-year sentence.

Meanwhile, two other Christian converts on temporary leave from prison – Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhteri and Amin Khaki, both 36 years old – have had their leave extended until the end of the current Persian-calendar month, equivalent to 18 April.

Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, welcomed Mahrokh’s release and the extension to Aylar and Amin’s leave. 

He added: “We hope that Aylar and Amin’s leave will also be turned into permanent release, as being forced to return to prison is not only unjust but can also put them in serious risk under the current circumstances.”

Aylar began her one-year jail sentence on 31 August 2019 at Tehran’s Evin Prison. Amin began his 14-month sentence at the central detention centre in Karaj on 6 July 2019. Like Mahrokh, both were convicted of “propaganda against the regime”, as a result of the peaceful practice of their Christian faith.

Amin and Mahrokh were among the first cohort of prisoners given 36 days’ leave on 2 March, as well as another Christian convert who cannot be identified, as Iran responded to continued calls from human rights groups to release prisoners of conscience, amidst fears the country’s overcrowded prisons could become a hotbed for the disease to spread.

Two weeks later, on 15 March, Aylar was also given temporary leave

Previously, on 26 February, Assyrian-Iranian Christian Ramiel Bet-Tamraz, 35, was released from prison three weeks ahead of schedule, as was another Christian convert who cannot be identified. 

On the same day, Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, 21, was released on a bail of 30 million tomans ($2,000), pending a court hearing five days later, which was later postponed to 14 April.

Mary tweeted that the decision to continue scheduling court cases and imprisoning people during the coronavirus crisis should be considered a “crime against humanity”.

It is also believed that Majidreza Souzanchi, 36, who is coming to the end of his two-year sentence, has been or is soon to be released.

10 Christians still detained

Clockwise from top left: Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, Zaman Fadaei, Mohammad Reza Omidi, and Yousef Nadarkhani.

However, ten Iranian Christians serving longer sentences of between five and ten years remain in prison, despite calls for their release.

This includes four Christians whose convictions are currently being reviewed.

Yousef Nadarkhani, 42, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 46, and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaei, 36, have made several requests for release on bail since their retrials were accepted in October, and their families are increasingly anxious about them.

The same is true for the family of Nasser Navard Gol Tapeh, who is 58 years old and has suffered several health issues

Nasser was finally granted a retrial in February, having initially been denied in October.

Saheb has also suffered health issues, and was recently denied treatment in prison despite suffering from a fever and hallucinating.

The other Christians still being detained are Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, who was sentenced alongside Yousef, Saheb and Yohan; and Abdolreza Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, and Behnam Akhlaghi, who recently lost their appeals against five-year sentences.

All of them, apart from Nasser, are from the northern city of Rasht and are part of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”. 

Four more “Church of Iran” members from Rasht – Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar – are currently out on bail, awaiting summonses to serve their own five-year sentences, having lost their appeals alongside Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Babak, Mehdi and Behnam.

Several other Christians are currently enmeshed in ongoing court cases, including Victor Bet-Tamraz, his wife Shamiram and three Christian converts – Amin Afshar-Naderi, Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi – whose appeal hearings have been repeatedly postponed. Their next hearing is scheduled for 1 June.


For an up-to-date list of all known court proceedings involving Iranian Christians, see our Prisoners List.

Iranian Christians denied furloughs even though retrials underway

Iranian Christians denied furloughs even though retrials underway

Clockwise from top left: Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, Zaman Fadaei, Mohammad Reza Omidi, and Yousef Nadarkhani.

Four Iranian Christians serving ten-year sentences in Tehran’s Evin Prison are being denied temporary release even though their requests for retrials have been accepted.

Yousef Nadarkhani, 42, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 46, and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaei, 36, have made several requests for release on bail since their retrials were accepted in October, and their families are increasingly anxious about them in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The same is true for the family of Nasser Navard Gol Tapeh, who is 58 years old and has suffered several health issues. Nasser was finally granted a retrial last month, having initially been denied in October.

Saheb has also suffered health issues, and was recently denied treatment in prison despite suffering from a fever and hallucinating.

Prisons became a hotbed for the spread of the coronavirus in China, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has called for the release of all prisoners of conscience to reduce the potential spread of the virus.

Iran’s judiciary have reported the release of as many as 83,000 prisoners serving short-term sentences. At least seven Christians were among them: 

Most recently, on Sunday, Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhteri, 36, was given a temporary furlough, though details of the terms of her release are yet to emerge.

It is also believed that Majidreza Souzanchi, 36, who is coming to the end of his two-year sentence, has been or is soon to be released.

Previously, on 26 February, Assyrian-Iranian Christian Ramiel Bet-Tamraz, 35, was released from prison three weeks ahead of schedule, as was a Christian convert who cannot be identified. 

On the same day, Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, 21, was released on a bail of 30 million tomans ($2,250), pending a court hearing five days later, which was later postponed to 14 April.

Mary tweeted that the decision to continue scheduling court cases and imprisoning people during the coronavirus crisis should be considered a “crime against humanity”.

Three more Christian converts were given 36 days’ leave from prison on 2 March: Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari, 62, Amin Khaki, 36, and another Christian convert who cannot be identified.

Who are the remaining Christian prisoners?

Alongside Yousef, Saheb, Yohan and Nasser, there are at least a further six Christians in prison: Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, who was sentenced alongside Yousef, Saheb and Yohan, and Abdolreza Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, and Behnam Akhlaghi, who recently lost their appeals against five-year sentences.

All of them, apart from Nasser, are from the northern city of Rasht and are part of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”. 

Nasser, who was initially sentenced alongside three men from Azerbaijan, is from Tehran. 

Four more “Church of Iran” members from Rasht – Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar – are currently out on bail, awaiting summonses to serve their own five-year sentences, having lost their appeals alongside Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Babak, Mehdi and Behnam.

Several other Christians are currently enmeshed in ongoing court cases, including Victor Bet-Tamraz, his wife Shamiram and three Christian converts – Amin Afshar-Naderi, Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi – whose appeal hearings have been repeatedly postponed. Their next hearing has been scheduled for 1 June.


For an up-to-date list of all known court proceedings involving Iranian Christians, see our Prisoners List.

Ebrahim Firouzi’s exile extended by 11 months

Ebrahim Firouzi’s exile extended by 11 months

A Christian convert serving two years in internal exile in a remote southeastern Iranian city has had his exile extended for a further 11 months owing to an unauthorised leave of absence.

Ebrahim Firouzi, who is 34, began his exile on 12 November 2019, just two weeks after returning home from six years in prison because of his Christian evangelism.

He was sent to the remote city of Sarbaz, 1,000 miles from his home in Robat Karim, near Tehran, and told to travel there at his own expense and to remain there for two years, signing in every day to prove his presence.

However, shortly after arriving, Ebrahim requested a short furlough from the local authorities to travel to the city of Hamedan, west of Robat Karim, to sort out some family affairs that he hadn’t been able to attend to in the short time between his release from prison and journey into exile.

Ebrahim told Article18 the matter related to his mother, who died during Ebrahim’s time in prison and was denied permission to see him in her last days, despite an emotional plea for one last chance to see her son.

Ebrahim was told by the local authorities in Sarbaz that a short leave of absence shouldn’t be a problem, but that they needed to check with the authorities in Robat Karim. 

He was told to wait for their response, but having not heard anything for several days, Ebrahim decided to proceed with his plans, and left Sarbaz on 13 December, returning six days later.

But on his return, Ebrahim was informed that his absence had been reported to the judicial authorities in Tehran and that he should have obtained permission from the court in Robat Karim, which sent him.

Hearing this, Ebrahim immediately took a flight to Robat Karim and was eventually able to obtain a signed letter by a judge authorising his absence.

With this in hand, he returned to Sarbaz on 27 December, two weeks to the day after he first left. But on his return, Ebrahim was told that it was in fact the prosecutor’s office in Tehran, not Robat Karim, from which he ought to have sought permission.

He was also advised not to sign in again until the matter was resolved, because, they said, he was likely to be summoned to Tehran, and if he were to go there, it would be seen as a second leave of absence, the punishment for which would be to serve the remainder of his sentence in prison.

A copy of the court document sent to Ebrahim, dated 11 March 2020.

Hoping to hear from Tehran within a few weeks, Ebrahim heeded their advice, but in fact it wasn’t until yesterday, three months on from his leave of absence, that Ebrahim finally received a letter informing him that his sentence had been increased by eight months, plus an extra three months to cover the period of time in which he had failed to provide signatures to prove his presence in Sarbaz.

So there would be no court hearing, after all, and Ebrahim’s sentence was the maximum he could have faced – of one third of his sentence, plus the time he had spent “on leave”, albeit primarily still within Sarbaz.

In the ruling, which was declared final, with no option to appeal, the judge included some false information, citing one charge against Ebrahim that he had never faced – “cyber-spying” – and another – “propaganda against Islam” – that he had once faced but had been acquitted of.

Ebrahim gave this reaction to Article18: “The court has given a final verdict, without giving me an opportunity to explain or to defend myself, and uses charges against me which are either unrelated, or I’ve been acquitted of. Therefore I have decided to take this matter to the media, to demand an explanation, and make my voice heard, as this is an example of a miscarriage of justice by the Iranian judiciary.” 

Ebrahim added that he believed the judge who had made the ruling must either have been unqualified – due to the substantial errors made in the text – or included the misleading information with a view to damaging his reputation with people in Sarbaz, who, Ebrahim said, “have accepted and respected me as a Christian”.

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, commented: “One of the most-documented accusations against the Iranian authorities has been miscarriages of justice, vague and unfounded charges used indiscriminately against religious and political activists. Ebrahim, and the recent court ruling against him, is a living example of this.”

Convert gets two more years in prison  for ‘Evangelical Zionist Christianity’

Convert gets two more years in prison for ‘Evangelical Zionist Christianity’

Christian convert Ismaeil Maghrebinejad has been sentenced to an additional two years in prison.

The 65-year-old was sentenced in January to three years in prison for “insulting Islamic sacred beliefs”.

Now, following a court hearing on 27 February, he has been 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 advocacy director, 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.

Ismaeil has 20 days to appeal.

Background

Ismaeil initially faced four charges following his arrest in January 2019: “propaganda against the the Islamic Republic” and “apostasy”, as well as the two charges mentioned above.

In October, Ismaeil’s bail was increased tenfold after he responded to a question from the judge about whether he had insulted Islam and was an apostate by saying that he had never insulted Islam and that different ayatollahs had different opinions over the question of apostasy.

If found guilty of apostasy, Ismaeil could have faced the death sentence, though this is rarely given to Christians in Iran and the charge was dropped in November.

At that same November court 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”.

Ismaeil’s next hearing, on 8 January, 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.

Mr Borji said at the time that 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,” he said.

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

40 years a Christian

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, both guaranteeing freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choosing and to propagate that religion.

Ismaeil’s daughter, Mahsa, told Article18 last year she believed her father was being harassed in part because she and her husband, Nathan, who now live in America, continue to pastor Christians in Iran through the Internet.

Article18’s latest annual report highlighted the harassment faced by Mahsa’s father and also Nathan’s parents, who received several visits from intelligence agents in 2019, with the agenda of putting pressure on them and damaging their reputation in the community.

Christian converts lose appeals against five-year sentences

Christian converts lose appeals against five-year sentences

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)

Nine Christian converts have lost their appeals against five-year prison sentences, though none of the men, nor their lawyers, were permitted to attend the 25 February hearing.

A lawyer for one of the men told Article18 that Iran is attempting to expedite its judicial processes due to a backlog of cases related to recent protests and a general slowdown as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The nine Christians – Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoost, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian and Mohammed Vafadar – were sentenced in October to five years in prison for their Christian activities, which were deemed “actions against national security”.

Five of the men – Abdolreza, Shahrooz, Behnam, Babak and Mehdi – have been in Tehran’s Evin Prison since July.

The other four are out of bail, but can now expect to be summoned to serve their sentences any day.

Background

The nine men were arrested during raids on their homes and house-churches within the space of a month in January and February 2019. 

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

In July, 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 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.

All nine men are from the northern city of Rasht and are members of the non-Trinitarian “Church of Iran”, the same church as imprisoned pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and fellow converts Saheb (Zaman) Fadaee, Mohammad Ali Mosayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi, who are all serving ten-year prison sentences.

Six Christians among 54,000 released from prison

Six Christians among 54,000 released from prison

Amin Khaki and Mahrokh Ghanbari have been granted 36 days’ leave from prison.

Six Christians were among the more than 54,000 prisoners released from custody in Iran over the past week, as part of efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Article18 has already reported on the early release of Assyrian-Iranian Christian Ramiel Bet-Tamraz and the release on bail of Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi on Wednesday last week. Another Christian convert who cannot be named was also released that day.

Then on Monday, 2 March, three more Christian converts were given 36 days’ leave from prison: Rokhsareh (Mahrokh) Ghanbari, who is serving a one-year sentence; Amin Khaki, whose sentence is 14 months; and a third convert who also cannot be identified.

Mahrokh was forced to submit 30 million tomans for bail (around $2,000) – the same as Mary Mohammadi – and Amin 50 million (around ($3,000).

Mary Mohammadi is out on bail, while Ramiel Bet-Tamraz was released three weeks ahead of schedule.

Rights groups have been calling for the release of all political prisoners for weeks, noting that prisons in China, where the virus first emerged, became a hotbed for the disease.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Iran highlighted in his most recent report that the country’s overcrowded prisons are a “source of infections and ill-health” and the “spread of infectious and communicable diseases”.

Succumbing to the growing pressure, on Monday Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, announced that more than 54,000 prisoners who had tested negative for the coronavirus had been released on bail.

The leave did not apply to security prisoners serving sentences of more than five years, Mr Esmaili said, which could explain why more Christian prisoners of conscience were not freed.

Five Christians are currently serving ten-year sentences on security-related charges – Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, Yousef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie, Mohammad Ali Mossayezbazeh, and Mohammad Reza Omidi

Left to right: Saheb Fadaei, Yousef Nadarkhani, Mohammad Ali Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi.

Another five – Abdolreza Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, and Behnam Akhlaghi – have been detained since July last year. They are appealing against five-year sentences.

It is not clear, however, why there has been no furlough for Christian convert Fatemeh (Aylar) Bakhtari, who, like Mahrokh, is serving a one-year sentence. 

The families of detainees have called for more prisoners to be released, including those serving longer sentences, with the sister of an imprisoned environmentalist noting that the virus “is unaware of [the length of] sentences when it infects people”.

Counting the cost

Iran has recorded the highest number of deaths (92) from the virus outside of China.

Several senior Iranian figures have been infected, including 23 MPs and the Vice President for women and family affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, while a member of the Expediency Council, Mohammad Mirmohammadi – reportedly a close confidant of the Supreme Leader – has died.

Iran rejected an offer of assistance from the United States, but a team of World Health Organization officials have been allowed into the country.

The government has not confirmed any cases of the virus in its prisons, though there have been claims of infections at several prisons.

An open letter by 100 Sunni prisoners in Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj claimed the authorities were not doing enough to combat the spread of the virus.

They said they had not been provided with masks, gloves and disinfectant, as requested, and were refused temporary leave.