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Iranian Writer Sentenced to Death for Apostasy

(June 20, 2015) – The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) has learned that Hesameddin Farzizadeh, a 23-year-old former nuclear physics student, has been sentenced to death for apostasy by the Criminal Court of Meshkinshahr in Ardabil province. A source with knowledge of the case indicates that Farzizadeh was arrested in a raid on his house in November 2014 by plainclothes Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) agents and held incommunicado at the MOI facility in the town for several days before being transferred to Meshkinshahr Prison, where he has been held since. The charge of apostasy stems from a book written by Farzizadeh, entitled “From Islam to Islam”, in which Farzizadeh examines the history of Shi’a Islam and raises questions about certain facets of Shi’a ideology. For instance, in his book Farzizadeh reportedly questions the existence of the Twelfth Imam, who, according to Shi’a theology, is a messianic figure who is to eventually reappear as a latter-day savior of humanity.

Although Iran’s criminal code, known as the Islamic Penal Code, does not define the crime of apostasy, Article 167 of the Iranian Constitution states that when the law is silent on a topic, a judge is to refer to Islamic jurisprudence and make a ruling accordingly. Relying on this constitutional provision, the Criminal Court of Meshkinshahr has found that Farzizadeh’s beliefs, as expressed in his writings, constitute apostasy. Under Islamic law, denying the fundamentals of Islam may be the basis for the finding that an individual has left the faith and therefore become an apostate. The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy, but in such cases Islamic jurists rely on other authoritative sources, such as the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, known as the hadith, to argue that apostasy is punishable by death.


In addition to his death sentence, Farzizadeh has also been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment and 74 lashes. These sentences rise from charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammad, the Shi’a Imams, and Ayatollah Khomeini. According to IHRDC’s source, local MOI officials also reportedly threatened Farzizadeh’s family that his death sentence would be carried out if news of the case were to go public. The source also alleges that Farzizadeh has been threatened and assaulted in prison in recent weeks.


Charges such as apostasy, which is rarely prosecuted in Iran, and the far more common charge of insulting religious figures violate basic principles of international human rights law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran has signed and ratified, guarantees freedom of religion as well as the freedom of expression. Article 18 of the ICCPR states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”


Article 19 of the ICCPR declares, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice,” a right further confirmed by General Comment 34 on the Article as extending to acts including “religious discourse.” In addition, Article 6(d) of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief likewise establishes that the freedom of conscience and religion includes, among others, the right “[t]o write, issue and disseminate relevant publications in these areas.”


Farzizadeh’s sentence does not only violate basic human rights norms. The ruling from the Criminal Court of Meshkinshahr appears to violate Iran’s domestic criminal procedure laws, as well. Under Article 4 of the Law to Establish Public and Revolutionary Courts, only Provincial Criminal Courts have the jurisdiction to hear capital cases such as apostasy, whereas the Meshkinshahr Criminal Court is a county-level judicial body.