An Iranian court of appeals has upheld the prison sentences of five Christians. These believers face a total of 22 years in prison and the equivalent of $2,225 (around PHP 120,000) in fines for their involvement in house churches.
Joseph Shahbazian, 58, a “recognized” Christian of Armenian descent, faces 10 years in prison, and Christian converts Mina Khajavi, 59, and Malihe Nazari, 48, have each been sentenced to six years.
In addition, the court ordered mother and daughter Masoumeh Ghasemi and Somayeh (Sonya) Sadegh, who are also converts, to pay fines of 24 million tomans (around PHP 52,000) and 40 million (around PHP 70,000) tomans, respectively, for their participation in a house church.
All five Iranian Christians were convicted in June of “forming and operating illegal organizations [house churches] with the aim of disrupting the security of the country”—a claim with no evidence.
Judges Abasali Hozavan and Khosrow Khalili Mehdiyarji, of the 36th Branch of the Appeal Court of Tehran, said the defense had failed to meet the necessary criteria for an appeal to be considered.
But the Christians’ lawyer, Iman Soleimani, says the judgment had been reached “without an actual hearing, and with a complete disregard of the extensive and well-reasoned defense offered.”
According to Soleimani, the court proceedings showed a “disregard of absolute legal and juridical principles, such as the principles of equal opportunity [to dispute accusations], legality of crimes and punishments, and right to a defense.”
Article18’s Advocacy Director Mansour Borji explained, “This is a common practice in cases of prisoners of conscience, where the Islamic Republic does not want to officially own the unlawful decisions they have taken, for fear of social and political backlash.”
The judgment also made a passing reference to “the extent of the activities” of the accused, without giving any explanation.
“Neither in the court, nor now in the appeal, has there ever been any mention of what ‘extensive’ activities they’re talking about,” Borji said, “so it’s a claim without any substantiation. It fits the pattern of complete disregard to the law, and clearly shows they’ve not engaged even in the slightest way with the extensive legal reasoning the defense lawyer has provided.
“None of this has even been considered in the verdict, nor responded to. This clearly displays Iran’s sense of impunity, as the international community continues to stand by and watch Iran’s blatant disregard of human rights.”
In recent months, pressure on Christian converts in Iran has been building with more arrests and court cases, causing Open Doors to call for an immediate stop to “systematic campaigns … against Christians and other religious minorities.”
Furthermore, Open Doors has called “for the immediate release, dropping of all charges and cancellation of the prison sentences” for Joseph Shahbazian, Mina Khajavi, Malihe Nazari, Masoumeh Ghasemi and Sonya Sadegh.
Open Doors is “appalled by the testimonies of violations of due process that took place in the court rooms, including humiliating remarks from the judge, the court’s unconcealed favor for the prosecutor’s side over the defendants’, occasional lack of access to a lawyer, and verdicts issued in less than 10 days—clearly—without sufficient consideration of evidence.”
An Open Doors representative delineates the specific call: “We urge the Iranian authorities to immediately stop the systematic campaigns of arrests, arbitrary detentions, seizure of property and unfair trials against Christians and other religious minorities.
“While these all are incidents that have been publicly reported, there have been more and it is safe to say there has been an increase in the arrest and detention of Christians in Iran in the first half of this year.”
Let’s remember those arrested for their faith in Iran, pray their heinous charges will be dropped without incident and continue to pray that the courts will recognize the injustice take and steps to protect freedom of religion.
*Image used courtesy of Article 18