By Damaris Kremida
The main defense lawyer for Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who is appealing a death sentence, may be facing imminent imprisonment for defending the rights of Iranians, according to Amnesty International.
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a prominent human rights activist, had been sentenced in July to a nine-year prison sentence and a 10-year ban on legal practice and teaching, and he learned on April 28 that an appeals court had upheld the sentence. Charges against him included “membership of an association seeking the soft overthrow of the government” and “spreading propaganda against the system through interviews with foreign media,” according to a press statement by Amnesty International.
At press time it was not known whether he had been detained, but he has reportedly said he expected to be imprisoned.
Dadkhah is co-founder of Iran’s Center for Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). The CHRD was forcibly closed in 2008, and though its members have continued to carry out their work, they have faced harassment from authorities and some of them are serving prison sentences in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
An expert on Iran who requested anonymity said that Dadkhah had been Nadarkhani’s main lawyer, but that if he were imprisoned the effect on Nadarkhani’s fate would be unclear.
“What is clear is that this development is not good news,” the source said. “My sense is that the rule of law in Iran is abused, and the decisions of the Iranian courts are unpredictable and at the whim of the authorities. If Nadarkhani is hanged or released, it will not be primarily on the basis of the arguments of a good lawyer, but based on the whim of the authorities.”
As an Islamic republic, Iran views Christians and especially Christian converts as enemies of the state and pawns of the West out to undermine the government.
Most Christians who face charges are not able to afford legal defense. Those who can afford legal counsel have difficulty finding lawyers who are willing to defend them, because of how subversive Christianity is considered by the regime and the repercussions on lawyers.
“Many of the Christians who face court hearings do so without legal representation,” the source said. “Simply by taking on a case of which the government disapproves, a case which challenges the government, would be high risk for a lawyer. Dadkhah’s arrest has been coming for a long time, so it’s not a surprise. The surprise is that he’s been able to practice for such a long time.”
In September 2010, Nadarkhani was sentenced to death after a court of appeals in Rasht, 243 kilometers (151 miles) northwest of Tehran, found him guilty of leaving Islam. He has been in prison since October 2009.
At an appeal hearing in June, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Nadarkhani’s sentence but asked the court in Rasht to determine if he was a practicing Muslim before his conversion. The court declared that Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim before his conversion, but that he was still guilty of apostasy due to his Muslim ancestry.
Nadarkhani’s case had been sent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for a decision on his death sentence, but legally the lower court still has the authority to issue an execution order. Khamenei may or may not make a decision, and if the court were to issue an execution order, Khameni would have the authority to block it. His case is essentially on hold.
In another significant case, the Iranian Revolutionary court sentenced Farshid Fathi, a Christian held in Tehran’s Evin Prison since December 2010, to six years in prison, Mohabat News reported last month. Though his trial was in January, details of the proceedings were not available until recently. Fathi was arrested and tried for “action against the regime’s security, being in contact with foreign organizations and religious propaganda,” according to Mohabat News.
Fathi’s lawyer plans to appeal the case, Mohabat News reported. Married and the father of two young children, Fathi is held in Ward 350 of Evin Prison.
More Arrests, Releases
Mohabat News reported on May 1 that several Christians who were arrested in Isfahan, south of Tehran, on Feb. 22 were released on bail, though the pastor of St. Paul Church of Isfahan, Hekmat Salimi, remains detained at Dastgerd prison.
On April 14, Iranian authorities simultaneously raided the homes of two Christian converts in the capital, Tehran, and arrested them. Mohabat News identified the Christians only as Ladan N., 26, and Hooman H., 27. The two were reportedly held in Evin Prison, and though charges against them are unknown, authorities have sent their parents letters of summons to appear in court to answer questions about the converts’ activities.
When authorities arrested Ladan, her mother asked them where they were taking her daughter. One responded, “Ask Jesus Christ to come and release her,” according to Mohabat News. Authorities confiscated many of her belongings, including her laptop, camera, books and photos.
Five Christians who were arrested on Feb. 8 in the southern city of Shiraz are still in prison at the Adel-Abad prison. The families of the five Christian converts have not been able to receive information about them and have been told that they could not be released on bail, according to Mohabat News. Their names are Fariba Nazemian, Mojtaba Hosseini, Homayoun Shokoohi, Mohamad-Reza Partoei and Vahid Hakkani.
Three other Christians arrested from the same group on Feb. 8 in Shiraz were released on bail after 36 days in police custody. They are awaiting a court date, according to Mohabat News.
The five Christians who are still in prison have reportedly been interrogated by an assistant prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, but charges against them are unknown.
On April 11, Iranian authorities released Fariborz Arazm, 44, a Christian convert, from Evin Prison in Tehran. Arazm had been arrested at his residence in October in the area of Robat Karim, just south of Tehran. Authorities had ransacked Arazm’s house, confiscating Bibles, photos, CDs and his computer hard-drive among other items, according to Mohabat News.
Authorities reportedly charged him with being in contact with missionaries and of promoting the Christian faith among Iranian Muslims.
Arazm was held in Rajaei-Shahr prison in Karaj, where he was kept in solitary confinement for 21 days. He was later transferred to Evin’s Ward 350 for further interrogation. Arazm was held in Evin for six months, according to Mohabat News.