Proposed Bill “Penalization of the Perverse Sects”: The Islamic Consultative Assembly’s Leap to Legalize Investigation of Beliefs

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Moin Khazaeli

The news is short and shocking:  Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly intends to review a bill, by virtue of which, if passed, the “investigation of beliefs” in its true sense will be legalized, and people’s beliefs and ideologies will be criminalized and subject to punishment.  A frightening, prejudicial and unjust law, which, in light of the current process of the Judiciary in Iran concerning arrests and indictments of individuals under illusory pretexts, would demonstrate a new scheme by the Islamic Consultative Assembly in support of the Judiciary in Iran.

The objective of this bill—which, according to Mohammad Ali Pour Mokhtar, a member of the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, is under review by the Committee under the title of “Bill for Penalization of the Perverse Sects”—is punishment of the members of such sects owing to their impact on “diverting individuals from religion and encouraging them to commit sins.”

On Tuesday, 12 Shahrivar [3 September], in an interview with Etemadonline, Pour Mokhtar, without mentioning any sect or sects intended by the lawmaker, said:

“This proposed bill is written in regards to the sects that do not have a religious or Sharia authority.  They associate themselves with Islam, but their actions and behaviours deviate from religion, and in most instances are in contrast with or opposition to, or even at war with religious decrees.”

The member of the Consultative Assembly also indicated that the main reason for the criminalization of the so-called perverse sects is “destroying the foundation of families.”  He said:

“In this regard, from the point of view of the representatives and those who drafted the bill, these efforts are criminal acts and subject to prosecution and punishment.”

The announcement of the review of the proposed bill by the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee by Mohammad Ali Pour Mokhtar, however, was made after Mohammad [Hasan] Norouzi, the spokesman of the Committee, announced the ratification of the bill in its entirety earlier in Mordad [July], based on which two new articles will be added to the law of ta‘zirat[1] and deterrent punishments in the Islamic Penal Code, ratified 1375 [1996][2].  Norouzi had previously said:

“Two articles, designated Articles 499 and 500—repeated—will be added to Chapter One of the Book of Ta‘zirat of the Islamic Penal Code.”

The referenced chapter of the Penal Code, “Domestic and International Security Offences”, is the one under which many of the journalists, students, trades activists, and human and women’s rights activists are tried and at times sentenced to long-term imprisonment pursuant to its provisions.

This chapter is notorious, according to the statistics and evidence, for the widely imposed section of the Islamic Penal Code that refers to the suppression and unreasonable punishment of individuals who are identified and labeled by the judicial apparatus or the security organs as “damaging,” or, better yet, “perverse.”

At the same time, even though it is not clear whether or not the recent bill announced by Mohammad Ali Pour Mokhtar is, in fact, one and the same as the one announced in Mordad by the spokesman of the Committee as having been ratified, it is still an indication of the efforts of at least some of the members of the Consultative Assembly to strengthen the judicial power to indict people—indicting them not on the basis of “criminal acts,” but merely based on personal ideologies!

“In Iran There is No One in Prison for His or Her Belief!”

The claim that “no one is imprisoned and punished for his or her belief” is one that has been repeated by many of the government authorities of the Islamic regime, particularly the current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the leader himself.

One of the most infamous of such claims was in Urdibehest 94 [April 2015] in an interview with the American channel PBS, where Zarif said:

“We do not put anyone in prison in Iran for his or her belief.”

This statement by Zarif received countless reactions, and many accused him of being a liar and perverting the truth.

That said, it should be recognized that the claim made by Zarif, though not a true representation of the current reality, was not a lie either, and that in light of legal evidence and the codified law in Iran, it is, in a way, true, given that, fundamentally, none of the penal codes in Iran (i.e., the Islamic Penal Code), penalizes one merely for having a certain belief, nor do they criminalize the propagation of such belief.  In truth, it could be said that no verdict by the court has, so far, determined that [a defendant before it] is deserving of punishment based on “codified law” merely because of adherence to an ideology or propagating a belief.

However, arrests, detention, long-term imprisonment, denial of employment and education, and other forms of persecution imposed on religious minorities and those with different beliefs, are facts that cannot be denied or ignored.  The question is, then, based on what law does the Judiciary in Iran arrest and try supporters of various beliefs and ideologies—in particular, its religious minorities?

The answer to this question must be sought first in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and then in Chapter One of the Book of Ta‘zirat and deterrent punishments in the Islamic Penal Code, i.e., the chapter to which two other articles are to be added.

Based on Article 167 of the Constitution, where there is no codified law to address certain issues, judges are to rely on the provisions of the Sharia law to issue their rulings.  This means that the judicial system in Iran can determine the criminality of an act merely by virtue of a Sharia principle or guidance (such as propaganda about a particular doctrine or even holding a certain belief), and issue punishment therefor.

However, since this process bears a certain cost for the Judiciary, and its blatant declaration will open a floodgate of criticism both domestically and internationally, and also, in consideration of the legal requirement for the legality of crimes and punishments (Article 2 of the Islamic Penal Code), the Judiciary, in collaboration with the security forces—especially that of Shia scholars—has left the responsibility for the identification of “deviant ideology” or “perverse sects” to the security forces and Sharia scholars.

Since there is no reference to the term “perverse sect” in the criminal code in Iran, once the scholars determine a certain belief or ideology to be “perverse,” the Judiciary relies on Chapter One of the Book of Ta‘zirat and deterrent punishments to indict the person or persons under one of the offences in this Code, mostly under crimes against national security.

Meanwhile, Article 279 of the Islamic Penal Code on the subject of moharebeh[3], and Article 287 on efsad-e-fel-arz[4], are among the laws that are heavily relied on by the Judiciary in Iran in indicting those who hold other beliefs and ideologies—inasmuch as, particularly with respect to efsad-e-fel-arz, making rulings and decisions on such acts is widely open to the interpretation of the Shia scholars and not found in the codified law.

A review of the rulings against those who hold other beliefs and ideologies, or adhere to another religion, who are determined by the Judiciary as deviant, demonstrated that in almost all cases, the courts have relied on the laws pertaining to “crimes against national security,” “propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” “espionage,” and “insulting religious sanctities.”

On such bases, for instance, the Judiciary indicted Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the group known as Erfan-e Halghe, and some of its other active supporters, on charges such as “collusion and assembly with intent to act against national security, insulting religious sanctities, having unlawful relationships, and collection of unlawful income,” and sentenced them to imprisonment.  In this case, one of the security forces in Iran even pushed to try Taheri for crimes of moharebe, and issued a fatwa from at least three points of imitation, in regards to labeling Taheri mohareb, to ensure his execution order and enforce it.  Ultimately, however, the Judiciary did opt for the ruling of mohareb against Taheri.

The role of Sharia and Islamic laws within the government of Iran, and their priority in the law, is so powerful that the Environmental Organization in Iran recently closed the licenced environmental schools.

On this issue, Isa Kalantari, the head of the Environmental Organization, stated that the points of imitation were against the continuation of these schools and considered their curricula and training anti-religious.

Any Belief Can Be Considered a Crime

Even though it has not been determined that the efforts of the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee of Islamic Consultative Assembly for the ratification of this new law are on behalf of the Judiciary for the legalization, and, in fact, widening the prosecution of what is considered by the leadership and the Islamic scholars to be deviant or perverse, or that these efforts are supported by the representatives independently, to satisfy the judicial need, what is clear is that with ratification of this bill, particularly the two proposed articles, a wide variety of actions can fall under its provisions, and many people can be indicted pursuant to its clause, given that, fundamentally, Article 2 of the proposed bill (Article 500—repeated) considers any training effort or propaganda “damaging to the Islamic Sharia,” and a criminal act.

Moreover, in this article, the lawmaker has made no differentiation between propaganda and training in real or virtual spaces; in fact, it has not defined the terms “propaganda” and “training” in the said articles, and has left it open to include any act.

The other issue is that the proposed law has made no effort to clarify the terms “perverse” or “deviant”, or at least provide an example for one, and has left the determination of those terms to the court, in consultation with “experts in the Ministry of Intelligence and the management of the seminary in Qom.”  The approach is similar to what has been practiced so far by the security and intelligence organs to convince the Shia points of imitation in Qom to issue a ruling of moharebeh and efsad-e-fel-arz, or to determine a certain belief “perverse.”

It is clear that the new law, in light of the open-endedness of these two articles, and their lack of specific provisions and references, and in leaving them to the discretion of the Shia scholars, if ratified, will make the way clear for the “investigation of belief” by the security forces and the Judiciary—particularly because the generality and vagueness of these two articles are such that it can apply to a Telegram Chanel with a membership of tens of people and consider it “formation of a sect” and determine its content as “propaganda and training.”

As such, it is not farfetched to consider this bill as a measure to legalize persecution—a measure that makes the process in Iran’s Judiciary similar to that of the courts in the middle ages, which were able to simply criminalize any ideology or thought.


[1] [Ta‘zirat (discretionary punishment):  Punishments of certain offences whereby discretion is given to the judge, as per the Islamic Penal Code Book of Ta‘zirat]

[2] [Ratified 22 May 1993]

[3] [Waging War Against God]

[4] [Corruption on Earth]


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