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.)

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496