By Edward Carney
It was reported on Thursday that after being denied asylum in Germany, a 58-year-old Iranian convert to Christianity was immediately arrested upon being deported back to Iran. Fatemeh Azad fled to the West in 2015 with her three sons, and although two of them were granted asylum, her own application was denied in May. Her third son is also at risk of deportation, and consequently of arrest in a country where converting from Islam to any other religion is a criminal offense.
Under Iranian law, Azad is eligible for the death penalty, but no known person has been hanged for apostasy for several years. However, this represents only a modest improvement in the Iranian judiciary’s treatment of Christian converts and other religious minorities. Churches throughout the country are routinely raided, and persons who have been accused of proselytizing for Christianity have recently been sentenced to prison sentences ranging up to 15 years.
Making matters worse, many of those individuals are also subjected to extrajudicial punishments, as is the case with political prisoners in general. These include physical beatings and psychological torture during the period of detention, as well as the systematic denial of due process and the unlawful intermingling of prisoners of conscience with hardened criminals, putting members of the former group at risk.
In a report published last week, Iran Human Rights Monitor suggested that the instances of this extrajudicial punishment and psychological pressure have proliferated recently for all political prisoners. The report specifically highlighted the violent and sometimes fatal consequences of the judiciary’s neglect for provisions of the penal code which mandate the separation of prisoners according to the nature and severity of their crimes. The issue began to receive serious attention in June after activist and political prisoner Alireza Shir-Mohammad-Ali was killed by a fellow inmate who had been convicted of violent crimes.
The incident gave rise to widespread allegations that prison officials and the judiciary had facilitated the attack by leaving open a door to Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s cell, or that they had at least willfully ignored previous threats of violence by the fellow inmate. This sorts of allegations have followed the broader coverage of prisoner non-separation and the Human Rights Monitor report lists four other instances of political prisoners being wounded by violent offenders while being held in close confines with them.
Judiciary officials have sought to justify this process of unlawful intermingling by highlighting their euphemistic labeling of political prisoners. High-ranking officials like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have famously denied that such a category of prisoners even exists in the Islamic Republic, despite countless, detailed reports of persons being detained and subjected to multi-year sentences for peaceful activism or the practice of free speech. According to regime authorities, such actions are grounds for arrest and prosecution because they constitute credible threats to national security, and this is the label that follows them through trial and detention.
The categorization of political prisoners as national security criminals also grants the regime license for other practices that potentially increase pressure on from the point of arrest until the moment of release. For instance, a minor provision of the country’s Islamic Penal Code allows for national security prisoners to be legally held without access to an attorney for an extended period of time. When such cases eventually proceed, they are held in the Revolutionary Court system, thus establishing a higher likelihood of harsh sentences, including the death penalty. What’s more, the judiciary has normalized the practice of limiting defendants’ choice of attorney in these and other cases to a short list of professionals who were pre-approved by the regime itself.
This practice made headlines once again on Thursday, alongside the issue of Iran’s legal persecution of religious minorities, when it was reported that trial had been delayed for nine Christians because of their efforts to retain their own legal representation. Judge Mohammad Moghiseh returned five of those individuals to indefinite pre-trial detention and specified that they would remain there until they agreed to replace their own chosen attorney with one from a pre-approved list. At roughly the same time, Moghiseh refused to hear the case of four others because they sought to present their own defense to the court.
“The judge’s arbitrary and unwarranted decision to punish these Christians, simply for wanting to be represented by a lawyer of their choice, constitutes a grave violation of article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is party, and which stipulates, amongst other things, the right to legal assistance of one’s choosing,” said Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that the upcoming trial is both fair and transparent, and to end the policy of subjecting Christians, who merely seek to practice their faith peaceably, to excessive national security-related charges.”
Thomas’ statement also urged action by Western governments on this and related human rights issues. Pressure from those sources has seemingly helped to reduce the instances of capital punishment for political prisoners, or at least slow their implementation. But that pressure is also accompanied by pressure from the prisoners themselves and from Iran’s larger activist community.
According to another recent report by Iran Human Rights Monitor, several independent hunger strikes have been organized in recent weeks to urge a change in the behavior of the judiciary and to bring even greater international attention to the plight of Iran’s political prisoners. One such action, taking place in Ward 4 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, was explained in an open letter from six participants whose demands include an end both to the practice of unlawful intermingling of prisoners and to the practice of withholding legal representation.