ISTANBUL (Morning Star News) – Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini was sentenced to eight years in Iran’s most notorious prison Jan. 27 for allegedly threatening “national security” by planting house churches years ago.
Judge Pir-Abassi of Branch 26 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court sentenced the 32-year-old pastor. Sentencing in this court most likely required the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
“This is a real travesty – a mockery of justice,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Liberty and Justice (ACLJ), which represents Abedini’s wife and children in the United States. “From the very beginning, Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release.”
The verdict comes after a week of false promises of being granted bail and fear for his safety in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison. Iran’s official news agency reported that the state regime had told the pastor he could be released if he posted bail. When his family in Tehran attempted to free him, however, the bail officer turned them away, according to the ACLJ.
His location was also unknown for the last six days, since his first and only hearing before the judge on Monday (Jan. 21). Prison officials prevented his family from visiting him by claiming he had been transferred to another wing for medical treatment.
During his incarceration, Abedini faced periods of solitary confinement, repeated physical assaults and intense interrogations, “all while being denied access to legal counsel,” according to a letter members of U.S. Congress sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Jan 15.
The pastor’s wife, Nagmeh Abedini, released a statement after his sentencing.
“The promise of his release was a lie,” she said. “These false hopes amount to psychological torture. You don’t want to trust them, but they build a glimmer of hope before the crushing blow.”
She and their two children, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, reside in Idaho.
“With today’s development I am devastated for my husband and my family,” Nagmeh Abedini said. “We must now pursue every effort, turn every rock, and not stop until Saeed is safely on American soil.”
The defense strategy of Abedini’s defense attorney, Naser Sarbazi, a Muslim, was to portray his activities in Iran as faith-based and without any political agenda. Abedini has traveled between Iran and the United States doing humanitarian work since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010, when he married his U.S. wife. The Iranian government does not recognize his U.S. citizenship.
During the trial he presented himself confidently before the judge, ACLJ international legal director Tiffany Barrans told Morning Star News.
“He was able to share from the Bible, explaining to the judge that he was motivated by his faith and had no political intention to undermine the Iranian government,” she said.
Abedini has been incarcerated since September. He was arrested when he returned to Iran to visit his family. He first became a Christian in 2000 and was ordained as a member of the American Evangelistic Association in 2008.
Before the verdict was given, the White House, the U.S. State Department, and 49 members of Congress called for his release as a U.S. citizen, fearing that the court was ready to hand Abedini a death sentence.
In a Friday (Jan. 25) press conference, White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned Iran’s “continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion, and we call on Iranian authorities to release Mr. Abedini.”
Judge Pir-Abassi has been condemned by the European Union and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms for human rights violations. In the international legal arena he is known as the “hanging judge” due to his handing down long prison sentences and death penalties following the 2009 protests against the presidential election.
The verdict on Abedini comes amid a heavy crackdown on the Iranian church. In addition to various house-church arrests in recent months, pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was detained on Christmas Day, then released on Jan. 7. He had been arrested in 2009 for “apostasy” even though a court found he had never practiced Islam in the first place. He faced the death penalty but was released in September following an international outcry.
Vruir Avanessian, 60, a well-known pastor and worship leader, was arrested last month at a house-church meeting, then freed after posting a massive bail. He faces further court hearings.
Avanessian, an Armenian-Iranian worship leader active in the church since the 1970s, was released from prison Jan. 10 due to concerns about his health. He posted a $60,000 bail, using real estate as security. The date of his trial is not yet known and no formal charges have been brought against him, according to Middle East Concern.
During his imprisonment, his friends and family were reportedly concerned he would die from blood poisoning. Avanessian suffers from a kidney disease that requires dialysis every two days and needs prescription medication for his condition.
His kidney failed during his detainment, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran. He underwent surgery on Dec. 31 and was transferred to Evin Prison.
Avanessian’s original arrest came on Dec. 27, during a house-church meeting of approximately 50 Christians, many of them converts from Islam. Leaving Islam is a capital offense in Iran.