Thursday, March 10, 2005

Imprisoned Iranian Pastor may Face Death Penalty

Christian Today:
A military court in Iran has sentenced Christian pastor Hamid Pourmand to jail for three years and has ordered his immediate transfer to a group prison cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison – a move denounced by international Christian human rights groups.

According to Compass Direct, the former army colonel and Assemblies of God lay pastor, who was arrested last September and detained in unknown location, was charged with deceiving the Iranian armed forces about his religion. Recently, the military court tried him and pronounced him guilty of deceiving the Iranian armed forces by not declaring, when he acquired officer rank, that he was a convert from Islam to Christianity. Under the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is illegal for a non-Muslim to serve as a military officer. read more

Pourmand, 47, who was arrested when the police raided a church conference in Karaj, near Tehran, has been a Christian for the last 25 years.

During the hearing, Pourmand’s lawyer produced several documents in which his client’s military superiors had acknowledged years ago that the colonel was a Christian. He had even been excused by his commander from observing the Muslim month of fasting, an exemption granted only to non-Muslims.

During the hearing, the prosecutors also claimed that Pourmand was involved in spying against his country. However, they had no evidence to prove this false charge.

According to Compass Direct, rejecting the evidence that Pourmand's military superiors recognised several years ago that he was a Christian and even had given him exemptions from participating in Muslim fasts, the court ruled that Pourmand was guilty of giving "false testimony" and producing "falsified documents" and sentenced him to three years in prison. The verdict came during the second and final session of his military trial that begun in late January.

The conviction also brought an automatic dishonourable discharge from the military that stripped Pourmand of his family housing, salary and pension from nearly 20 years of service.

Pourmand’s lawyer said that he would appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court while blocking efforts to put Pourmand on trial before a Sharia court of Islamic law, where under charges of apostasy and proselytising he could be sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington has called on the Iranian government to immediately release him.

"This is a shocking travesty of justice, even by Iran's meagre standards," said the centre's director, Nina Shea. "Hamid Pourmand is serving hard prison time for peacefully exercising his right to free conscience under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Shea said the fact Pourmand "changed his religion before the revolutionary Islamic regime came to power and has documents showing that he openly lived a Christian life the past quarter century did not protect him from the ideology of hatred against other religions, including other Muslim interpretations, that underpins the Iranian judiciary."

Iran’s Constitution declares Islam as its official religion.

Since 1990, several ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity have been either assassinated or executed by court order, under the guise of accusations of spying for foreign countries.

Under Iranian law, apostasy is listed along with murder, armed robbery, rape and serious drug trafficking as a capital offence.