U.S. calls on Iran to release Christian pastor, condemns ‘rights abuses’ of ethnic minorities


The U.S. State Department on Wednesday called on Iranian authorities to release Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani who is facing execution for converting from Islam to Christianity.

Nadarkhani has now spent 1,000 days in prison. Islamic sharia law allows for apostasy sentences to be overturned if the convicted person “repents” and renounces his conversion, which Nadarkhani has so far refused to do.

His death sentence was upheld by an appeals court in September 2010, but overturned by Tehran’s Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court in his hometown of Rasht in Northern Iran.

The vice governor of the Gilan province, who is responsible for security and political affairs, said that Nadarkhani’s religious beliefs are not at issue, but that the pastor is “a Zionist, a traitor and has committed security crimes.”

In a statement, the State Department also condemned what it described as the “human rights abuses” of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran.

It said the U.S. was troubled by reports of the execution of four members of Iran’s Ahwazi Arab community, whose sentences were carried out “with little due process.”

In mid-June, Iran executed Abdul Rahman Heidari, Taha Heidari , Jamshid Heidari and Ali Sharifi, all members of the country’s Arab minority, after they were detained in 2011 amid unrest in the Khuzestan province and convicted of “Moharebeh” (enmity against God) for allegedly killing a law enforcement official.

The executions were widely condemned by human rights groups who said the men, all members of the same family, had not received a fair trial.

The Iranian constitution formally provides for the fair treatment of ethnic minorities, including their rights to use their language, but in practice ethnic groups, such as Azeris, Arabs, Kurds and Balochs are reportedly discriminated against, especially in political rights and freedom of expression.

“The U.S. statement follows similar condemnation by the EU, Britain and Germany as well as international human right organization and is the culmination of a vigorous campaign launched by Ahwazi activists,” explained Dr. Karim Abdian, executive director of the Washington-based Ahwaz Human Right Organization to Al Arabiya.

However despite the international outcry, Arab media has generally neglected the issue, he said.

The U.S. also expressed concern over the well-being of prominent literary translator Mohammad Soleimani Nia who has been reported missing following his release from Iran’s notorious Evin prison where he was detained for five months on unspecified charges.

Soleimani Nia hasn’t been seen since he responded to a call from authorities to retrieve personal belongings that had been seized. He was to pick up the items, including his driver's license, computer and passport at an office near Evin Prison.

Sources have said he has been re-arrested but so far Iranian authorities have refused to comment.