An Iranian-American Christian pastor who was sentenced to eight years in jail in January must immediately be freed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Iran on Friday.
Kerry said he was “deeply concerned” about the fate of Saeed Abedini, who has already been held for six months in Iran in the notorious Evin prison.
The top U.S. diplomat said in a statement that he was also “disturbed by reports that Mr Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.
“Such mistreatment violates international norms as well as Iran’s own laws,” Kerry added, saying he was troubled by the lack of due process in the trial, and Iran’s refusal to allow Abedini consular access by Swiss authorities.
Abedini, a naturalized U.S. citizen who converted to Christianity, was handed the jail sentence in late January, despite denying “charges of establishing churches to disrupt national security” in Iran and colluding to carry out crimes.
His supporters say he led underground churches in the early 2000s when such activity was largely tolerated during the pro-reform presidency of Mohammad Khatami.
Having resettled in the United States, Abedini was detained on a return trip to Iran in 2009 and was then let go following an agreement not to engage in underground religious activities, according to his family.
“The best outcome for Mr Abedini is that he be immediately released,” Kerry added.
Abedini’s wife Naghmeh this week released a letter she just received from her husband alleging that he has beaten during interrogation, and that he has suffered from “intense pain.”
The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic ties in the late 1970s and Switzerland now handles consular matters for Washington with the Iranian authorities.
In recent years, the U.S. has also called for the release of Iranian Christian cleric Youcef Nadarkhani, who was charged in November 2010 with apostasy and sentenced to death for leaving Islam and converting to Christianity.
In April 2012, controversial U.S. Pastor Terry Jones burnt the Quran and images of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed in protest of Nadarkhani imprisonment.
Rumors circulating that Nadarkhani had been executed were refuted earlier this month by UK-based rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Pictures had emerged purporting to show a man being hanged were attributed as evidence of the 34-year-old pastor’s death.
“While we are relieved to report that Pastor Nadarkhani is alive, we urge caution in circulating rumors which must be deeply distressing for his family, his congregation and for many around the world who continue to pray for him,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told the Christian Post.