By Maryam Dehkordi
February 12, 2022
Article 18, the human rights organization that advocates for freedom of religion or belief, with a special focus on Christian converts in Iran, published a report on February 1, 2022, on the summons of Ahmad (John) Sarparast, Morteza Hajeb Mashhudkari and Ayub (Farzin) Pourrezazadeh on charges of “activities, propaganda, and deviant educational initiatives contrary to holy Sharia [law], and communicating with foreign countries.”
According to Article 134 of the new Islamic Penal Code, in cases of multiple crimes of different types, the maximum punishment will be issued for all of them, but only the most severe punishment will be carried out. But it remains possible that these Christian converts will be sentenced to severe punishments.
One concern regarding the sentences handed down to the Christian converts is the citing of Article 500 bis of the Islamic Penal Code, which intensifies the imposition of unjust sentences on Christian converts.
What are these changes and what effect do they have on the rulings issued for religious minorities?
Ahmad Sarparast, 25, and Ayub Rezazadeh, 28, were arrested by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) intelligence agents in a house church in Rasht on September 5, 2001. At the same time as arresting the two men, IRGC agents arrested another 38-year-old Christian citizen, Morteza Hajib Mashhudkari, at his home in Rasht. Some of their belongings and property, including Christian books and mobile phones, were confiscated, and each of them was temporarily released on 400 million toman ($9,400) bails.
Now, according to what was stated in their arrest warrants them, the confiscation of properties belonging to these converts, in favor of Iran’s treasury, and repeated citing of Article 500 bis, has caused them concern.
What does Article 500 bis of the Islamic Penal Code say?
Saeed Dehghan, a member of the International Bar Association and a lawyer representing a large number of Baha’i citizens in Iran, said regarding Article 500: “To understand what Article 500 says, we must first study articles 498 and 499 of the Islamic Penal Code. Article 498 states that anyone with any ideology or ethnic class, who creates an association of more than two people inside or outside the country whose aim is to disrupt the security of the country, if not recognized as a mohareb [someone who wages war against God or the state], will be sentenced to imprisonment of two to ten years. If he is recognized as a mohareb and the charges are found to have a security aspect, the punishment can be increased to the death penalty. This article of law has been the basis for severe punishments for many religious minorities, including the Baha’is.”
“Some members of the [Yaran, a group of informal Baha’i leaders] were sentenced to 20 years in prison under the same article of the law,” he said, referring to the harsh sentences handed down to seven Baha’i citizens more than 10 years ago. “However, due to many objections and ambiguities in the charges, as well as the approval of Article 134 in the Penal Code, this sentence was reduced to 10 years and implemented.”
The lawyer went on to refer to the content of Article 499: “This article states that if a person is a member of a group, that is, not even the founder or leader of a group, only a member of a group, for example, house churches, he will be sentenced to three months [and up] to five years in prison; unless he can prove that he was unaware of the group’s goals, which the government generally claims to be acting against the security of the country and propaganda against the regime. Under Iranian law, it is the accused member who must prove they were unaware of these aims of the group; whereas, according to legal principles [in the West], negation is sufficient for a denial, that is, if an accused says they were unaware of the intentions of said group, that is sufficient, and it is not the responsibility of the accused to prove this ignorance. If the judiciary [in the West] claims that someone is aware of the goals of the group to which it belongs, the burden of proof is on the judiciary to demonstrate this awareness. But in Iran it is quite the opposite. This is legally incorrect and illegal.”
Article 500 states: “Financing or any other kind of material support to the groups subject of this article, knowing their nature, shall result in a sentence of fifth degree imprisonment, that is, imprisonment for more than two to five years, and confiscation of the property belonging to those groups in favor of the treasury.”
Saeed Dehghan, the lawyer, believes that many legal provisions in the Islamic Penal Code accuse citizens of acting against national security, while the laws themselves act against the security of the country: “Articles 499 bis and 500 bis … are mentioned in the first chapter of the fifth book of punishments, entitled ‘Crimes against internal and external security of the country.’ But when you look at their examples, you see that the articles have nothing to do with national security. Rather, it is purely personal values, whether religious, ideological, psychological, sexual, or any others, but not the internal and external security of the country. It is not clear at all what these have to do with national security. Incidentally, it is completely related to the security of the regime and the ideology of politics and power.”
Why is it a violation of the law to cite Article 500 bis?
Three Christian converts arrested in Rasht attended meetings of a house church known as the “Church of Iran.” In recent years, many members of this house church have been sentenced to long prison terms, exile, and flogging, including Yousef Nadarkhani, one of the leaders of this house church who is currently serving six years in prison.
Hasan Rajabi, the investigator of Branch 4 of the Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office of Rasht, wrote in the “final verdict” issued to these citizens: “Sometimes in the homes of the above-mentioned people, they administered, organized and held meetings that were not only not approved by Christianity and churches in Iran, and even outside Iran, but were also severely denied and rejected by the above centers.”
This was written at a time when Persian-language churches have been closed in Iran for the past 14 years and there is virtually no place other than private homes for Christian services.
Amin Khaki, Milad Goodarzi and Alireza Nourmohammadi, three Christian prisoners imprisoned in Karaj under the amendments to Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code and the government’s communique to the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice in late February last year, were accused of “deviant propaganda and educational activities contrary to the holy Sharia [law] of Islam.”
Regarding the illegality of Article 500 bis, Saeed Dehghan, referring to his own experience in the case of the Baha’is of Iran, says: “The Baha’i organization was dissolved by the Islamic Republic at the beginning of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After that, the Baha’is, through an [informal] board of trustees, dealt with their affairs. But this group was dissolved in 2008. So these people have no organization and are not members of any association or group. Whatever it is, it is personal. The same is true of Christian converts and even other citizens. When Persian-speaking Christian churches are closed and everything is done in the privacy of individuals’ homes, the property is also personal and does not belong to a particular group or organization. Article 500 states that any action that results in psychological or physical domination over another, in such a way that the person is exploited and sexually and physically abused. So what does this have to do with the security of the country? Therefore, even if a person from a religious minority declares that he intends to give property to an organization (which does not exist in practice), they will not be able to confiscate that property …”
Referring to the word “treasury” in the discussion of the confiscation of property under Article 500, Deghan says: “Even if we raise the issue of sharia, the illegality of the changes in this legal article becomes more obvious. The treasury is a common asset; that is, it belongs to all citizens. Well, a Baha’i citizen or a Christian convert pays taxes to the government for his property. Then the legislature usurps the property, and brings an illegitimate property into public property. The true Muslim knows that usurpation makes it invalid. Therefore, the legislator is both undermining ethics and acting against the law, through this article.”
Why is Article 500 bis of the Islamic Penal Code contrary to national interests?
In many cases, the judiciary uses baseless allegations made by security agencies to justify the harsh sentences they issue. The judge of the Rasht court also wrote, without providing any evidence about Ahmad Sarparast, Ayub Rezazadeh and Morteza Hajib Mashhudkari, that: “The beliefs of this sect are a kind of sub-branch of satanism.”
Inquisition is prohibited under the Iranian constitution – but the security and judiciary systems continue to suppress religious minorities. And yet the Iranian authorities have repeatedly stated that they do not punish anyone for having an opinion or a belief.
“I think that many legal acts in Iran are against the ruling power and even against the security of the country,” says Saeed Dehghan, emphasizing the ban on inquisitions. “When the judicial authorities prioritize the security of the Islamic Republic over the security of the country, they destroy the security of citizens, they destroy the security of society, and this means creating insecurity in the country. That is, within the framework of the existing laws, they do not even adhere to the same laws. Article 9 of the Constitution explicitly states that in the Islamic Republic, freedom, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the country are inseparable, and it is the duty of the government and the people to preserve them.”
He added: “No individual, group or authority has the right to inflict the slightest damage to Iran’s political, cultural, economic, military, and territorial integrity, in the name of exercising freedom, and no authority has the right to restrict legitimate freedoms in the name of preserving the country’s independence and territorial integrity, with the excuse of enacting laws and regulations. However, we are witnessing that the legislature is making repeated changes to Article 500, according to which national interests can be harmed more than they were.”