Continued Uncertainty regarding the Fate of Mohammad Ali Taheri
(July 8, 2015)—In recent weeks rumors have abounded that Mohammad Ali Taheri, the leader of a spiritual movement known as Erfan-e Halgheh, has been sentenced to death. The Iranian judiciary has denied these reports, but in the absence of clear information regarding his ultimate fate or even his current condition, lingering concerns remain. Taheri was first arrested in April 2010. In December 2011, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Taheri to five years of imprisonment, 74 lashes, and a fine of 910, 500,000 toumans (approximately $671,000 per the exchange rate at the time). These sentences were based on charges of insulting sacred religious values, obtaining an illegitimate income, engaging in religiously prohibited acts, the dissemination of audiovisual material, and the illegal practice of medicine. The last of these charges stems from alternative medicine practices promoted by Taheri’s spiritual movement.
The latest development in Mr. Taheri’s case is a possible death sentence for apostasy. According to Fars News, three senior clerics have issued fatwas referring to Taheri as an apostate. Iran’s Islamic Penal Code (IPC) does not define the crime of apostasy, but Article 220 of the IPC establishes that crimes not mentioned in the Code must still be prosecuted pursuant to Article 167 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), which in turn directs judges to rely on Islamic jurisprudence when the law is silent on a matter. In its 2014 report entitled Apostasy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) explored various legal and jurisprudential aspects of the crime of apostasy. Generally, the rejection of fundamental tenets of Islam by a Muslim can be the basis for a charge of apostasy. While the Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy, Islamic jurists have relied on other sources, such as the sayings of the prophet Mohammad, known as the hadith, to declare apostasy a crime punishable by death.
On June 20, Tasnim News, which is reportedly close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), quoted Taheri’s lawyer as saying that Taheri has been sentenced to death, despite the fact that this sentence was not formally announced. On the same day, however, the Iranian judiciary’s website denied that a sentence for Taheri’s case has been issued. The Iranian judiciary has not confirmed that a charge of apostasy has been brought against Taheri.
The prosecutions of Taheri and some of his followers conform to a well-established pattern of abuse against religious movements that the IRI deems undesirable. A 2010 court opinion demonstrates the approach of the Iranian judiciary in pursuing spiritual movements such as Erfan-e Halgheh. In this court opinion, which pertained to a complaint filed by the husband of one of Taheri’s followers alleging illicit relations between the two, Branch 1088 of the Tehran Criminal Court, citing lack of compelling evidence, acquitted Taheri and his female follower, Adeleh Razmavar. Nevertheless, the fact that the prosecutor decided to pursue the case, and the stated charge of “engaging in a religiously prohibited act through participating in mixed-sex meetings (illegitimate relations)” [sic] demonstrate the judiciary’s inclination to prosecute practices it deems unconventional or inappropriate. It is important to note that Taheri had registered his institute with the State Organization for Registration of Deeds and Properties, and the court acknowledged that Taheri’s institute had the required permits. This approach was also pursued by IRI authorities in the case of Mohsen Amir Aslani. The Iranian judiciary also filed a charge of heresy against Amir Aslani for allegedly insulting the prophet Jonah by stating that the tale of Jonah and the whale was not meant to be taken literally. Amir Aslani was sentenced to three years of imprisonment for this charge. Later, he was also charged with rape, a capital offense, and was eventually executed in September 2014 on a rape conviction. But information provided to IHRDC by one female follower of Amir Aslani who faced significant pressure from IRI authorities to file a rape claim against him at the same time suggests that this charge may have been spurious. Indeed, Branch 31 of Iran’s Supreme Court reversed the rape conviction. Nevertheless, through an illegal procedural maneuver, another branch of the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence. The procedural vagaries and unlawfulness of the Amir Aslani case were further explored in IHRDC's legal commentary on the case, "Chronicle of an Execution: The Case of Mohsen Amir Aslani."
The Iranian government has also targeted several of Taheri’s followers in recent months. One of Taheri’s followers has provided evidence to IHRDC indicating that he subjected to severe torture after he was arrested for campaigning for Mr. Taheri’s release. In a separate incident in December 2014, Iranian media reported that four individuals involved with Erfan-e Halgheh were arrested on Kish Island and confessed to complicity in “illegal actions.” Two months later, in February 2015, HRANA reported that seven members of Erfan-e Halgheh were arrested during a protest in front of the Tehran Revolutionary Court.
Also in February 2015, Fars News reported that 16 teachers of Erfan-e Halgheh were each sentenced to one-to-five years of imprisonment. According to this report “insulting sacred religious values” was the main charge brought against these individuals. On June 19, 2015 HRANA reported that four of these individuals received phone calls from the authorities ordering them to present themselves to Evin Prison. Ardeshir Shahnavaz, a teacher of Erfan-e Halgheh, was one of those summoned, and he presented himself at Evin Prison to serve his five-year sentence as ordered.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Iran is obligated to respect the freedom of religion. Article 18 of the ICCPR declares, “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.” This article further states, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” The prosecution of Mr. Taheri for his religious activities, and the possible apostasy charge, are clear violations of the protections mentioned in Article 18 of the ICCPR.
Furthermore, a potential charge of apostasy would also violate Article 15 of the ICCPR, which states that, “No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed.” This prohibition against ex post facto convictions has also been interpreted as saying that criminal offenses must be clearly defined. For instance, in General Comment No. 29 the United Nations Committee on Civil and Political Rights stated that criminal liability should be based on “clear and precise provisions in the law that was in place and applicable at the time the act or omission took place.” As discussed above, apostasy is not listed as a punishable crime in the IPC. Furthermore, Islamic law does not clearly define apostasy, and jurists have come to different conclusions regarding the definition of this concept. As a result, any apostasy conviction under Iranian law violates Article 15 of the ICCPR, because the charge is not clearly defined in the country’s laws.