Amnesty International has urged the Iranian authorities to release a Christian pastor at risk of execution for “apostasy” for refusing to renounce his religion.
Yousef Nadarkhani, whose trial ended yesterday, is facing a possible death sentence if convicted, despite the fact that “apostasy” is not criminalized in Iranian law.
His lawyer told Amnesty International he is expecting a verdict within a week. Nadarkhani would have the right to appeal against any conviction and sentence to the Supreme Court.
"It is shocking that the Iranian authorities would even consider killing a man simply for exercising his right to choose a religion other than Islam," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Iran’s Supreme Court, in a earlier ruling on Yousef Nadarkhani case, said religious edicts (fatwas) by senior clerics could be used as the basis for a conviction, despite the fact that Iranian law is silent on “apostasy”.
Nadarkhani's lawyer submitted three edicts from senior clerics in his client's defence. Two seen by by Amnesty International cast doubt on even the religious validity of the idea that someone could be executed for wanting to change his or her faith.
"Yousef Nadarkhani is being held solely on the basis of his religious beliefs. He is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Naderkhani, born to Muslim parents in the northern Iranian town of Rasht, was arrested on 13 October 2009.
He turned to Christianity at the age of 19, becoming a member of the Only Jesus Church, before being ordained as a pastor in Rasht. He says he was never a practising Muslim.
His arrest may have been linked to the fact that he protested against his child being given mandatory lessons on Islam in school.
Naderkhani refused to recant his beliefs during his four-day trial this week, reportedly telling the judge: "I am resolute in my faith and Christianity and have no wish to recant."
A session on Wednesday was Naderkhani's final opportunity to save himself from execution by renouncing his Christian faith.
The pastor's lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, hopes the court will acquit Naderkhani of the charges. Dadkhah, a prominent defence lawyer, is himself facing a nine-year prison term and a fine for his human rights activities.
"Yousef Nadarkhani is one of many lawyers, students, human rights activists, protesters, other dissidents and members of religious and ethnic minorities who are persecuted by the Iranian authorities for expressing opinions or beliefs which diverge from official viewpoints," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
"Freedom of expression and belief are guaranteed under international human rights treaties that Iran has ratified. All prisoners of conscience held for their beliefs, including those from the Christian, Baha’i and dervish communities, must be freed."
Christians have faced increased persecution in Iran since the disputed presidential election of 2009. Senior officials – including the Supreme Leader - have repeatedly made statements about the need to combat “false beliefs”, believed to refer to evangelical Christianity, Baha’ism and Sufism.
Farshid Fathi, a 33-year-old Christian, has reportedly been held at Tehran's Evin Prison - apparently without charge, trial or access to a lawyer - since he was seized by police at his home in September 2010.
Earlier this month, an appeal court upheld a one-year prison sentence imposed on six members of the Church of Iran. They had been convicted in April 2011 of "propaganda against the state", reportedly for proselytizing.