Thursday, December 25, 2014

Religious toleration in Iran – Mohsen Amir-Aslani executed for heresy, Soheil Arabi condemned to death for "insulting the Prophet" on Facebook

Heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy (from Islam, not from other religions) are all crimes in Iran, potentially subject to the death penalty, and that's not an idle threat. Iranian courts sometimes do sentence people to death for those offenses.

On September 29 of this year Mohsen Amir-Aslani was executed for heresy—technically, for “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth". The "innovations" cited against him included suggesting that the Jonah story, which is in the Koran as well as the Bible, is symbolic rather than factual. This interpretation was held to constitute an insult against the prophet Jonah.

Soheil Arabi has been on death row for allegedly blasphemous Facebook posts, and a month ago Iran's Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. According to the latest report on this case from Human Rights Watch (December 2, 2014):
Iran's judiciary should vacate the death sentence of a 30-year-old man who faces imminent execution for Facebook posts linked to his account. On November 24, 2014, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld a criminal court ruling sentencing Soheil Arabi to hang. The court transferred his file to the judiciary’s implementation unit, opening the way for his execution.

A Tehran criminal court had convicted him in August of sabb al-nabbi, or “insulting the prophet,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death penalty. Arabi’s legal team has asked the judiciary to suspend the death sentence and review the case. [....]

Nastaran Naimi, Arabi’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence agents linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested her and her husband at their home in Tehran in November 2013. They soon released her but transferred her husband to a special section of Evin prison that the Revolutionary Guards control, where they kept him in solitary confinement for two months, subjected him to long interrogation sessions, and prevented him from meeting his lawyer, she said. They later transferred Arabi to Ward 350 of Evin prison.

Vahid Moshkhani, Arabi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that instead of upholding or overruling the lower court verdict, the Supreme Court unlawfully added the charge of efsad-e fel arz, or “sowing corruption of earth,” to Arabi’s case. In addition to carrying a possible death sentence, the charge also forecloses the possibility of amnesty, he said. [....]
One might think that locking in Arabi's death sentence this way would be considered sufficient. But just to make sure everyone knows they're serious, his accusers have piled on various other charges, too.
On September 4, 2013, judiciary officials sentenced Arabi to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” in a separate case stemming from the same Facebook posts.  [....]

On November 28, 2014, an Iranian news site published a story alleging that Arabi had been given a death sentence not for having “insulted the prophet,” but because he had raped several women. The news site said it had evidence to back up this claim but did not produce any information. In response, Saham News, a site critical of the Iranian government, published pictures of the lower court verdict to counter any claim that the judiciary had prosecuted Arabi for rape or illicit sexual relations, and one of his lawyers denied that his client had ever been prosecuted for such a crime. The judiciary has not commented on allegations that Arabi has been charged or convicted for sexual assault.  [....]
Some parallels between these gambits and a similar kitchen-sink approach in connection with Amir-Aslani's execution may be ominous signs for Arabi.
On September 24, prison officials at Rajai Shahr prison in the city of Karaj executed Amir Aslani, whom the judiciary had convicted of “sowing corruption on earth” for allegedly advancing heretical interpretations of Islam and insulting the prophet Jonah. After the execution, a judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaeili, denied that authorities had executed Amir Aslani for his religious beliefs, and said his hanging was related to “illicit” forcible sexual relations with several women. In fact, the Supreme Court had [....] ruled that the rape charges were invalid due to lack of evidence.  [....]

=> Of course, Iran is hardly the only country in that part of the world where theocratic repression is a problem—actually, it's not the worst in this respect. As I noted in 2013, it's true that
the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't have a sterling record [....] when it comes to freedom of conscience in general or freedom of religion in particular.  There is not even the pretense of granting non-Muslim religions legal or cultural equality; certain religious minorities, like the Baha'i, are persecuted with special ferocity; Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution; and so on.  But there is no question that, overall, there is much more religious toleration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia (a country routinely described as our "ally" and as a quintessentially "moderate" Arab power).  Everything is relative.
—Jeff Weintraub