The trial and punishment of Yousef Nadarkhani

Is a man to be executed for "apostasy"?

Yousef Nadarkhani is a Christian pastor living in Iran, and it is reported that he is about to be hanged.

He had a particular interest in promoting Christian education, even though Iran is a country where Islamic schools are the norm. One day, nearly two years ago, he was arrested.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) :

Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, of the Church of Iran denomination, was arrested in his home city of Rasht on 13 October 2009 while attempting to register his church. His arrest is believed to have been due to his questioning of the Muslim monopoly on the religious instruction of children in Iran.

Once arrested, the predicament of Nadarkhani worsened considerably. To again quote CSW:

He was initially charged with protesting; however the charges against him were later changed to apostasy and evangelising Muslims.

Of course, one does not have to be a critic of faith-based education or of religious belief generally (I am both) to see such an arrest and charge as fundamentally illiberal. To any Western observer, these things are not a matter for the criminal law, or indeed for any other form of coercion.

Nonetheless, Nadarkhani is convicted of apostasy by the Court in Rasht in September 2010. And this is where the case takes a deeply disturbing turn, for the court then proceeded to sentence him to death.

The full judgment (in an unofficial translation) was as follows:

According to the indictment No: 89/4/3-2080, issued by the public persecutor office of Rasht, Mr Yousef Nadarkhani, son of Biram, 32 years old and married, temporary in general prison since 28/7/1388, charged with the denial of the prophethood of the great prophet of Islam, that It has resulted in inherent apostasy from the holy religion of Islam after he has accepted it at the age of maturity until the age of 19.

The brief definition of what has taken place is that the mentioned-above person was born in 1356 from Muslim parents and according to his own statements in primary investigations, he has accepted Islam and obeyed its commandments from the age of puberty, and at the age of 19 he has converted from Islam to Christianity officially.

He has frequently denied the prophethood of the great prophet of Islam and the rule of the sacred religion of Islam. And he has proven his apostasy by organizing evangelistic meetings and inviting others to Christianity, establishing a house church, baptizing people, expressing his faith to others and, denying Islamic values.

After his arrest, during investigations, most of the time he has proven his return from Islam and denying the rule of Islam over all the religions in his own handwritten bills to The Assize Court of the province of Gilan. Even in his last defense on the date of 24/12/1388, when he was asked, "from the age of puberty until the age of 19, what religion have you had?"

He replied that "Since I was born in a Muslim family, I was Muslim until I converted to Christianity at the age of 19. In the other persecutor's question with this content that " do you admit that you were Muslim from the age of puberty and you converted to Christianity after passing the age of 19?" He replied he was Muslim from the age of puberty till he converted to Christianity in 19 years of age.

He was questioned once again that "do you believe in the elements of Islam which are the unity of God, resurrection of the dead and the prophethood of great Mohammad?" He answered "I believe in the unity of God and the resurrection of the dead but not the prophethood of great Mohammad."

After the issuance of culpability and indictment, the case has been sent to the courts that referred it to this section. Dr. Naser Sarbazi and Mr. Abbas Salmanpoor were appointed as the accused's attorneys, the court proceeded with the case after the formalities were carried out. The representative of the public persecutor office of Rasht read the issued indictment, and according to it, apostasy is a crime according to theologians of Islam even though there is a punishment for it in the laws of Islamic Republic of Iran. With regard to the Article 167 of The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 3 of Civil procedure of the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal, and the Article 105 of the Islamic Judicial system of Iran.

After the court caused him to understand the charge, the above-named person initially declined the charge by saying he has not have any particular religion after passing the puberty age till the age of 19, and converted to Christianity officially by believing that it is the only truth.

When he was asked by the court that why he has repeatedly stated during interrogations that " Since I was born in a Muslim family, I have been Muslim after passing the puberty age until I converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19". He answered " The persecutor induced me to believe whoever is born from Muslim parents and does not choose any religions after passing the puberty age, is a Muslim. That is why I have stated so."

The accused's attorneys in addition to repeating their client's defense, stated that, "Since there is no punishment specified in the Islamic Judicial system of Iran and other penal laws and therefore their client has not committed a crime to deserve a punishment. Secondly: Their client has not accepted Islam from the beginning of the puberty age to become an apostate by returning from it. Thirdly: Their client does not deny the prophethood of the great prophet of Islam as he has stated in his bills to The Assize Court of the province of Gilan that, he believes in great Mohammad as the great prophet of Islam. Fourthly: due to existance of not proven evidence regarding this case, the attorneys have requested a not guilty verdict for their client. in response to the court, that whether the accused believes in the prophethood of great Mohammad son of Abdullah as a prophet from almighty God for the salvation of humanity or not, he said, " I have stated in the written bills that he is the prophet of Muslims but not a messenger from God, I am saved for not studying Islam, and I will never speak of Islamic testimonies to convert to Islam.

After hearing of the indictment by the public persecutor, the accused denied his apostasy charge in his last defense, and committed the remaining defense to his attorneys' hands.

The attorneys have pleaded a not guilty verdict for their client by repeating the same previous defense. objections affected on the trial somehow one member of the jury left during the trial. even though some jury members, in the first day 30/6/89 and second day 31/6/89 of the trial, specified that the court has not accepted the objections after termination of the trial, and answers to the objections have been written.

As a result, with regard to 1- The reports of the intelligence bureau of Gilan as the executive office of the Judicial system. 2- The accused's explicit and indisputable writings with the content that he has accepted Islam at the age of maturity, and quitted it at the age of 19. 3- organizing evangelistic gatherings and admitting establishments of house churches. 4- the accused's unreasonable and not proven defense, that he has not enter Islam to quit it. 5- his written bills from prison to the investigator in charge of the case that confirm his statements in the intelligence bureau. 6- and other elements that exist in the case such as attorney's unreasonable defense that their client's denial of prophethood of the great prophet of Islam has not been due to enmity and malice with Islam but because of the anger and pressure he has been bearing.

It has been proven to the members of the jury that Mr Youcef Nadarkhani, son of Biram, has been born from Muslim parents, have chosen Islam, and quitted it at the age 19.

His actions according to the fatwas of all Shia theologians is considered as inherent apostasy from the sacred religion of Islam. With regard to the Article 167 of The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 3 of Civil procedure of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, Article 8 of The law of Establishment of the General and Revolutionary Courts, Article 105 of the Islamic Judicial system of Iran, Article 8 from the book of Tahrir Alvasilah Fi Sofat Alghazi Va Maianaseb Lah, Fatwas of theologians including Imam and the supreme leader and grand ayatollahs Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, Safi, Makarem Shirazi, Behjat Foumani, and pages of 103 till 109 of his file, the above-mentioned person as an apostate will be executed by being hung until somehow his soul is taken from him. The sentence is attendant and appealable at the supreme court 20 days after when It has been delivered.

So the death sentence -- "the above-mentioned person as an apostate will be executed by being hung somehow until his soul is taken from him" -- is not even based on codified Iranian law; it is based instead on Fatwas. Furthermore the death sentence does not even warrant more than a cursory mention: not even a full sentence in the unofficial English translation.

This case then goes to the Iranian Supreme Court on appeal in July 2011. By now, Nadarkhani is represented by the renowned and fearless Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, clearly one of the most admirable lawyers in the world, who is himself currently appealing a sentence of nine years' imprisonment.

The (brief) judgment of the Supreme Court, again in unofficial translation:

Mr Yousef Nadarkhani son of Bayram, a 34 year-old from Rasht became Muslim at the age of maturity is convicted of denying Mohammad and left Islam. He was born in 1356 of Muslim parents, and according to the investigation he was practicing Islam and keeping the commandments after the age of maturity. He converted and accepted Christianity officially at the age of 19 in the year 1375. He frequently denied Islam and Mohammad during the investigations. Also he proselytized others and invited them to the house church, baptized them and expressed his beliefs and his pervertedness. He expressed his faith in Christianity in the court before investigators and his lawyers.

According to the statements of the defendant and Khomeini's book prevision 8, sentences of other Imams, Khamenei and Makaremshirazi, the court convicted him and his sentence is hanging by rope. The sentence is contestable, his lawyers protested and the file has been transferred to the Supreme Court and has referred to this branch.

Verdict: Mr Yousef Nadarkhani confessed that he converted to Christianity and helped other people to convert and named himself a shepherd and insisted in Christianity, He doesn't believe in Mohammad, Imams and the Quran. The contents of the file also support these facts but the investigation is needed to prove that he was a Muslim after the age of maturity and practicing Islam, there is not any witness from friends, relatives, family and Muslim people who were in contact with him so the file is incomplete. According to the sentence of Imams such as Khomeini, the witness is needed to prove whether or not he was a Muslim and if he was a Muslim but remained unwilling to repent, the execution ruling is to be issued.

The file is incomplete and sent back to the same branch for reconsideration.

However, a contact of CSW has claimed that the proceedings in Iran took a further horrifying turn on Sunday:

Following investigation, the court in Rasht has ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult before becoming a Christian. However, the court has decided that he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.

Pastor Nadarkhani's lawyer, Mr Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, has made it clear to the court that the repeated demand for recanting is against both Iranian law and the constitution.

The court replied that the verdict of the Supreme Court must be applied, regardless of the illegality of the demand.

So we are told Nadarkhani was given four opportunities to recant.

We are also told that three times he has refused, and that his final chance is today.

There is no news yet on what happened. No one is available at the Iranian Embassy to comment.

And so, if the CSW and their contact are correct, a man will shortly "be executed by being hung until somehow his soul is taken from him", and this will be because he will not recant his religion.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary seats...it would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.