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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity