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The Targeting Of Iran's Religious Minorities Throws The President's Reformist Claims Into Doubt

08/08/2017 12:11 BST | Updated 08/08/2017 12:11 BST
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Hassan Rouhani is officially beginning his second term as president of Iran after emphatically defeating a populist, hard-line opponent who is thought have enjoyed the backing of the Revolutionary Guards, conservative clerics and even the Supreme Leader.

In his victory speech, Rouhani described Iran as having chosen "the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism", and while his victory is considered a triumph for the reformist faction, the experiences of Iran's religious and ethnic minorities under his first term do not fit with this progressive image.

Although more moderate than his opponent, Rouhani remains a product of the system. After all, his candidacy had to be approved by the Guardian Council, and while he is willing to engage with nations that espouse different doctrines or ideologies, a similar readiness to interact with those espousing disparate belief systems has hardly been visible on the domestic front.

Rouhani's first term was marked by a spike in executions and a significant deterioration in the rights of religious and ethnic minorities - the result of a campaign of harassment and arrests directed at house church networks, the Baha'i faith and minority Muslim communities.

This trend continued into 2017, with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) recently noting that since January, there has been an escalating series of arrests affecting a wide range of societal groupings. The Ministry of Intelligence has targeted ethnic and religious minorities, civil and women's rights advocates, journalists, dual nationals, environmentalists and relatives of protesters killed during the crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations that followed the 2009 presidential elections.

Since Rouhani's victory there has been a steep rise in the number of Christians being convicted, by the head judge of the 26th Branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, on the basis of vaguely-worded national security-related charges. Common charges include 'acting against national security', 'insulting the sacred' or 'propaganda against the State', for which they receive unduly heavy sentences. So far, Judge Ahmadzadeh has sentenced at least 12 people to 10 years or more in prison for 'acting against national security.'

One of them is Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, whose death sentence for apostasy was overturned in 2012. He was recently given a ten-year prison sentence with an additional two years to be served in exile in an inhospitable area far from his home. Another, Amin Afshar Naderi, was one of several arrested at a picnic and not only received a ten year sentence, but was also given an additional five years for allegedly 'insulting the sacred' or blasphemy.

Not one of these trials followed due process. No supporting witnesses were called; neither was any credible evidence presented to substantiate charges of such a serious nature. Moreover, verdicts appeared to be predetermined. The judge reportedly displayed little understanding of Christianity and its tenets and, during one case, was reported to have been reciting notes instead of engaging with legal arguments. Unsurprisingly, all of those convicted are appealing their sentences, but are not holding out much hope, since the verdicts were delivered on a political rather than legal basis, and appear to be punitive.

Procedural irregularities also occurred pre-trial. Some Christians were arrested without being shown valid warrants. Following their arrests, several were detained, held in solitary confinement and/or interrogated for extended periods prior to being charged. Once detained, they are also obliged to pay exorbitant amounts of bail to secure temporary release.

The excessive sentences handed down to the defendants effectively criminalise normal Christian activities, suggesting the existence of an officially sanctioned campaign of judicial harassment - contrasting starkly with the moderate and progressive ideals that Rouhani is thought to espouse.

It is no surprise that most of those charged with national security-related crimes are converts to Christianity, since apostasy (leaving one's religion), appears to be viewed as a threat to the theocratic integrity of the country. However, Iran's own constitution states in article 23 that no one should be molested or taken to task merely on account of their beliefs. Furthermore, Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognises the right to conversion. A country seeking a path of "interaction with the the world" should at the very least uphold its commitments under international law.

This is one area in which countries like the UK, that seek to engage with Iran can play a part; by encouraging the nation to respect its international human rights undertakings. Human rights must not be compromised during the course of bilateral negotiations. In particular, Iran must be persuaded to end the judicial harassment of minority faith communities, to overturn unjust sentences, to release all prisoners of conscience, and to ensure the independence of the judiciary.

Converts to Christianity are not the only targets of the judicial campaign. Amongst the recent convictions was an ethnic Assyrian pastor. Reverend Victor Bet-Tamraz, who led the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran and came under increasing pressure for holding services in Farsi -which he was forced to end. In 2009, he was compelled to shut the church altogether. He was arrested with others on 26 December 2014 during a Christmas celebration in his home, and was eventually charged verbally with 'conducting evangelism', 'illegal house church activities', 'Bible printing and distribution' and other charges that allegedly amounted to 'acting against national security'. The reverend was released on bail in 2015, and on 3 July this year, was given a 10 year prison sentence and a two-year travel ban.

Reverend Bet-Tamraz's family is also affected. In June, his wife, Shamiran Issavi, and son, Ramil Bet-Tamraz, were summoned by the Revolutionary Court. Shamiran Issavi was charged with 'acting against national security' by participating in Christian seminars abroad as a church member, and was detained but released the next day following a bail payment of 100 million tomans (approximately US $30,000). Ramil Bet-Tamraz, meanwhile, was charged with 'acting against national security', 'organising and conducting house-churches,' and also received charges relating to his father's church activities. Both are likely to appear before Judge Ahmadzadeh.

The systematic and institutionalised campaign of repression of religious minorities during Rouhani's first term in office seems set to continue into his second, as more Christians await trial for meeting in privacy of their own homes. However, his victory also gives him another opportunity - if he wants one - to focus on earlier campaign promises to promote human rights and equality for all.