Regardless of the accuracy of these specific projections, numerous other reports certainly make it clear that the practice of Christianity has persisted in recent years despite escalating efforts by the government to contain the community’s growth. The Fox News article points out that Iranian Christians obtain information and communicate with one another via banned social media and websites, and through home-based churches and other gatherings that have been declared illegal by the Iranian government. As such, even casual gatherings within the community cause its members to be subject to arrest. And indeed, there have been numerous mass arrests in recent months, not only of Christians at worship but also of Christians in private social gatherings.
This situation has been publicly acknowledged by numerous international human rights organizations, 19 of which recently issued a collective statement that was published on the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The statement called upon the United Nations and the international community as a whole to protect the rights of Iranian Christians, at least 79 of whom were arrested between May and August of this year.
The ongoing conversions and the general support being offered to the Christian community from human rights activists are both indicative of a backlash against the crackdown that the regime has been prosecuting not only against religious minorities but also against all manner of political dissenters and against writers, artists, and ordinary Iranians considered to be engaged in pro-Western or anti-Islamic social activities.
Alongside the collective actions of minorities and political or human rights organizations, some individual Iranian activists are also taking steps to both bring attention to recent abuses and exert pressure on the regime to answer for them. These activities frequently open activists and political prisoners up to additional reprisals by the regime, as evidenced by such things as the denial of medical treatment to several political prisoners currently engaged in hunger strikes. But these and other protest actions often generate international headlines, as well, potentially compelling the regime to respond to criticisms that might otherwise be ignored.
The International Campaign reported on Tuesday that Atena Daemi, who had previously come to the attention of rights groups following her arrest for peaceful activities in support of children’s rights and in opposition to the death penalty, had announced plans to sue the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps over the violent and illegal way in which she was taken to Evin Prison to begin serving her seven-year sentence.
In February of this year, Daemi was released on bail after having been held in pretrial detention for 16 months. She was later convicted of insulting the supreme leader and of assembly and collusion against national security, based on her alleged visits with the families of political prisoners, as well as her statements on social media criticizing the Iranian regime and its previous mass executions, including the 1988 incident in which thousands of members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran were hanged over the course of a single summer.
Iranian convicts who have been released on bail are often made to wait periods of months before they are summoned to actual begin serving their prison sentences. But in Daemi’s case, instead of being formally summoned, she was approached at her home by non-uniformed IRGC agents who broke into her room, acting on the authority of a warrant that had not yet gone into effect and was not presented until after she was apprehended.
The lawsuit that Daemi hopes to pursue is unlikely to yield a result that is favorable to her, especially considering the reportedly tightening relationship between the Iranian judiciary and the IRGC. However, even the threat of a lawsuit is certain to generate some publicity, and perhaps even public sympathy from a minority of Iranian lawmakers.
This latter outcome seems plausible in light of the fact that some members of the Iranian parliament have taken up reformist initiatives such as the effort to reduce the death sentences that are handed down for non-violent drug offenders. In 2015, approximately 1,000 people were put to death by the Iranian judiciary, many of whom had merely been convicted of possessing or trafficking in relatively small quantities of narcotics. The international pressure that has been exerted on Iran as a result of these figures has apparently compelled some Iranian lawmakers to push back against the regime’s over-reliance on hangings.
However, a report by the International Campaign points out that this initiative is strongly opposed by the judiciary, which has in fact urged an increase in the speed with which death sentences are carried out. Because of this opposition, and because of the close connections among the judiciary and such hardline institutions as the IRGC and the office of the supreme leader, it is unlikely that the death penalty reform bill will actually go into effect.
Even following passage by the parliament, this bill, like all others, will face review by the Guardian Council, which has blanket authority to veto any law deemed to be out of keeping with Iran’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law. And leading clerical authorities have strongly tended toward the retention of Iran’s existing legal standards, in turn rejecting virtually all international criticisms.
This trend can even be seen in the issue of Iran’s executions of individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes. Iran is a signatory to United Nations documents prohibiting this practice, but the regime has repeatedly reaffirmed its rejection of international standards regarding legal responsibility. Iranian law considers boys to be mature in the eyes of the law before the age of 15. For girls, the age of legal responsibility is nine.
In practice, this domestic standard is sometimes reexamined by individual judges on a case-by-case basis, but in almost all instances the Iranian appeals courts have determined teenage defendants to be legally mature and thus eligible for the death penalty. This is likely to be the outcome in the case of Ayoub Shahbazi, an 18-year-old whose death sentence is reportedly under review by Iran’s Supreme Court, according to the Iran Human Rights website. Shahbazi’s sentence resulted from a murder charge that was levied against him when he was just 16.
The confirmation of his death sentence would likely indicate that reform legislation will continue to be blocked by powerful hardline authorities. However, the ongoing social pressures from individual activists and minority groups will surely continue to encourage dissent among a reformist minority, while also encouraging the international community to further add to those pressures.