A judge in Iran has sentenced four Christians to 10 years imprisonment each for engaging in missionary activities and “conducting activities against national security.”
Judge Ahmedzadeh handed down the sentences in the case involving Iranian national Nasser Navard Goltape, and Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov and Bahram Nasibov from the Republic of Azerbaijan during a hearing held on 23 May 2017. However, the judgement was not communicated to them until 12 June. Although the men are appealing the sentences, local sources are pessimistic about the outcome, despite the lack of evidence against them, as the authorities appear determined to use the case to make a punitive statement.
The four men were arrested on 24 June 2016, after traveling to Tehran on an informal visit to their Christian friends. They were confined in Evin Prison, where they initially spent around two months in solitary confinement enduring regular interrogation, before being moved to Ward 350. They were released on bail on 29 October 2016, and the three Azeris were allowed to return to their country on 7 November 2016, having paid the full bail amount. The Azeri Christians may forfeit bail by not returning to Iran; however, Mr Navard Goltape does not have this option. Mansour Borji, advocacy director of Article 18, an organisation that defends persecuted Christians in Iran, expressed deep concern at the sentences, pointing out that: “this recent verdict by Iran’s revolutionary court is particularly alarming, as many other Iranian Christians are still awaiting trial for exercising their right to worship as Christians in privacy of their homes.”
Previously, the maximum sentence issued in such cases was five years, and in cases where defendants received two five year sentences, these were reduced to five years on appeal. According to records compiled by Article 18, in the last three months Judge Ahmadzadeh has sentenced at least 16 Christians to between five and 10 years imprisonment.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “The charges and sentences against these four men are unwarranted and unjustifiable, given the paucity of the evidence against them. We are deeply concerned for Mr Navard Goltape in particular, who is likely to bear the brunt of a sentence that was clearly issued on a punitive rather than on a legal basis. We reiterate that the constant harassment of members of the Christian community ought not to be occurring in a country where the constitution not only recognises Christianity, but also states that no-one should be molested or taken to task simply for holding a religious belief. As the three men launch their appeal, we urge the Iranian authorities to ensure due process is observed. We also call on the Iranian authorities to take steps to ensure that the nation’s practices, legal procedures and provisions come into alignment with its international commitment to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all of its religious communities.”