A human rights lawyer whose clients include jailed Christian convert Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh says a recent change to the law in Iran “will facilitate the repression and punishment of Christian converts and others belonging to unrecognised religious groups”.
Amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code passed through Iran’s parliament last month, meaning that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam”, whether in the “real or virtual sphere”, can now be labelled as “sects” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or even the death penalty.
“The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government,” Hossein Ahmadiniaz, who now lives in the Netherlands, told Article18, “but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognised minorities.
“I have seen it many times when defending religious prisoners of conscience, like Sunni Muslims or Christian converts, when they can use laws like this to carry out their oppression and then say, ‘We are acting according to the law.’”
Asked why the government had chosen this moment to introduce the new law, Mr Ahmadiniaz said there had been a “legal vacuum” since it became too internationally sensitive to convict religious prisoners of conscience, such as Christian converts, with religious charges such as “apostasy”.
There was an international outcry when Christian convert Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010, an outcry that eventually led to his sentence being quashed.
Yousef is now back in prison, alongside Mr Gol-Tapeh, also serving a 10-year sentence on charges of “actions against national security”.
Such charges are now much more commonly used against Christians than religious-sounding charges, noted Article18’s advocacy director, Mansour Borji, during a webinar yesterday responding to the recent developments in Iran.
The webinar, which was hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR), also included comments from advocates for Iran’s Baha’i, Jewish, Sunni and Sufi Muslim communities, as well as renowned human rights defender Shirin Ebadi.
IOPHR representative Hamid Gharagozloo said the new amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the penal code were “part of a greater plan” by the Supreme Leader to “form an iron-clad form of rule, where the slightest dissent, or even hint of dissent, is dealt with abruptly and violently”.
“By making it a crime to be part of a sect,” he said, “and banning a group as a ‘sect’, it gives them an open hand to crush any form of uprising or dissatisfaction with the government… Any form of defiance will be labelled as a ‘sect’, and then it will be punishable by law.”
Article18’s Mansour Borji said that in bringing forward the new measures, the Iranian government was responding to its “lost monopoly”.
“They’ve lost the hearts and minds of people and therefore they impose further controls to ensure their longevity and survival in power,” he said, “which means there’s fear, and there’s weakness. And there’s also hope, that the further we expose these hypocritical attitudes, policies and laws – not just to the elite but also to the general public and international community, and the people around the world – it furthers forces this government to either review its attitudes, policies and practices, or we have given a voice to people who long to see the right to religious freedom established.”