Originally published in Morningstar News
An Iranian-American who will go on trial in Iran on Monday (Jan. 21) for apostasy, or leaving Islam, has been beaten and threatened with the death penalty during interrogation, sources said.
Saeed Abedini, 32, will have his case handled by a judge notorious for handing death sentences to human rights activists. Judge Pir-Abassi has been condemned by the European Union and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for human rights violations.
Legal experts working closely with the case say that the Iranian prosecution has already threatened Abedini with the prospect of capital punishment.
“We know that during interrogation – interrogations in which the prosecutor participated – Saeed was told he could hang for his faith in Jesus,” said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
In the international legal arena, Pir-Abassi is known as the “hanging judge” for handing down long prison sentences and death penalties following the 2009 protests against the presidential election. Human rights attorneys in Iran say he is considered to be a puppet of the regime, as he is known to disregard even basic procedural rules in Iran. He sentenced many students to death following the presidential election protests.
Due to Pir-Abassi’s high-level connections, securing Abedini’s release would require significant pressure directly on the Iranian regime, Barrans said.
“It is imperative that the regime be sent a loud message by countries around the world that we will not stand idly by while it continues to violate fundamental human rights,” she said.
Court documents indicate Abedini is being charged with “compromising national security” due to his work of establishing a house-church movement. Abedini’s attorney said most of the charges are unclear except for him becoming a Christian in 2000, according to the ACLJ.
The Iranian government has also confiscated the assets of an Iranian bank account worth $105,000 donated to Abedini to build an orphanage.
The Christian was arrested in September when he returned to Iran to visit his family. He has traveled between the United States and Iran a number of times since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010, when he married his American wife, Naghmeh Abedini.
He is being held in Evin Prison in Tehran, known for its harsh conditions, detainment of political prisoners and frequent torture of inmates.
Abedini wrote a letter to his wife a few days ago describing his condition and the misleading statements that authorities are giving him, according to Fox News.
“This is the process in my life today: one day I am told I will be freed and allowed to see my kids on Christmas (which was a lie), and the next day I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus,” Abedini said. “One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy.”
If no intervention takes place, he could face a prison sentence of 18 years or the death penalty. Paul Hattaway, director of Asia Harvest and author of an upcoming spiritual biography of Abedini, wrote in a recent appeal that “from the human level, there is little hope for Saeed.”
This year, in addition to the arrests of the house-church attendees, pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was detained on Christmas Day, then released on Jan. 7. He was arrested in 2009 for “apostasy” from Islam and faced the death penalty but was released in September following an international outcry.
Crackdown on Iranian Church
Abedini’s trial comes amid a heavy crackdown on the Iranian church. Vruir Avanessian, 60, a well-known pastor and worship leader arrested last month at a house-church meeting, was freed from prison after posting a massive bail, but he faces further court hearings.
Avanessian, an Armenian-Iranian worship leader active in the church since the 1970s, was released from prison Jan. 10 due to concerns about his health. He posted a $60,000 bail, using real estate as security. The date of his trial is not yet known and no formal charges have been brought against him, according to Middle East Concern (MEC).
During his imprisonment, his friends and family were reportedly concerned he would die from blood poisoning. Avanessian suffers from a kidney disease that requires dialysis every two days and needs prescription medication for his condition.
His kidney failed during his detainment, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran. He underwent surgery on Dec. 31 and was transferred to Evin Prison.
Avanessian’s original arrest came on Dec. 27, during a house-church meeting of approximately 50 Christians, many of them converts from Islam. Leaving Islam is a capital offense in Iran.
During the raid, plain-clothes police officers raided the meeting on the pretext of a noise complaint by the neighbors. There were too many worshipers in attendance for all of them to be arrested, so police collected information on their activities as Christians. Officers immediately passed out special interrogation forms that asked the participants when they had become Christians, their connections to other churches, user names and passwords to their email and social media accounts, and their reasons for leaving Islam, according to MEC.
Following his arrest, security forces raided and search the homes of families connected with Avanessian, according to Mohabat News. They confiscated laptops, hard drives, flash drives, books, and books.
Avanessian is part of Iran’s ethnic Armenian community, which numbers approximately 80,000 and has a complicated relationship with the regime.
While thousands of Armenians have left Iran since 1979, The Armenian Apostolic church and its schools are officially recognized by the state, and two seats in the Iranian Parliament are reserved for Armenians. At the same time, they cannot be employed by the government or any government-owned business or public entity.