Four Iranian Christians each sentenced to at least ten years in prison had their first appeal hearing yesterday (25 April).
In the hearing, initially scheduled for February but postponed, a judge heard the case of Christian converts Hadi Asgari, Amin Afshar-Naderi, Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi and Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz.
At least a further two hearings will take place, the judge said, according to advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC). However, no dates were given. The four men are currently out on bail, awaiting the outcome of their appeal.
The judge was “respectful to the defendants and their lawyer, asking questions about the relationships between them and their Christian activities and listening carefully to the responses”, reported MEC.
However, Mansour Borji of Article 18, a London-based advocacy organisation, told World Watch Monitor “their judge doesn’t have a good track record in dealing with Christians arrested for their Christian activities. He comes across as a compassionate person but his verdicts have not reflected his conduct in the court”.
Borji said this is partly because judges can’t be independent, as sentences are dictated by intelligence officials.
“In November 2017 the same judge, Judge Babaee, upheld a 10-year maximum prison sentence for one Iranian and three Azeri nationals who faced similar charges,” Borji said. “Later he defended his position by saying: ‘Nasser [one of the defendants] was audacious enough to look into my eyes and declare his Christian faith; if he had at least denied his Christian faith, or expressed regret for his Christian activities, I would have reduced the sentence’”.
The four men were were arrested in 2016 while on a picnic in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran.
They were sentenced in July 2017 for “conducting evangelism” and “illegal church activities”. Asgari, Fallah-Mohammadi and Bet-Tamraz were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Afshar-Naderi was given an extra five – so 15 in total – for “insulting the sacred” (blasphemy).
After his sentencing, Afshar-Naderi wrote an open letter to the authorities, asking what he had done to “make you hate me this much” and declaring that he had decided to “terminate my life slowly” through a hunger strike. After three weeks and said to be “very unwell”, he was released on bail.
Earlier this year, four UN officials – including Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and Asma Jahangir, who was Special Rapporteur on Iran until her death in February – expressed their concern over the long jail sentences the Christians had received based on “charges that, according to authorities, amount to acting against national security, completely contrary to Iran’s international obligations”.
Iran is 10th on the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.