Accused of Waging “Soft War,” Christian Pastor Beaten in Iran’s Evin Prison
Christian pastor Saeed Abedini was conducting a routine visit to the non-profit orphanage his family helped to start in Rasht when Iranian security forces arrested him and seized his passport in July 2012. Five months later, Iranian courts convicted him of “undermining national security,” accusing him and other Christian converts of waging a “soft war” against the Iranian government through their practice of Christianity in informal house churches.
Saeed Abedini’s wife Naghmeh spoke with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in an interview about her husband’s ill-treatment in prison, the so-called “soft war” he and other Christians are accused of waging, and religious freedom in Iran.
“They had arrested him in 2009 because of work he had done [as a Christian pastor] from 2000 to 2005, but they’d let him go because he was no longer involved with house churches,” Naghmeh Abedini told the Campaign. “They had let him go in 2009 promising that they would not do anything against him . . . if he did humanitarian efforts like orphanages,” she added. Three years later, Revolutionary Guards seized him during a trip he took to visit the orphanage and took him to Evin Prison.
Between July and December 2012, Iranian authorities continually told Saeed Abedini’s family not to get him a lawyer nor to speak to the media about his situation, alternately threatening the family and promising his swift release. The family received news that he had been brutally beaten in prison September 2012, and hired a lawyer in December. His conviction came in January 2013, and his family is currently awaiting the appeals court decision from Branch 36.
“In early March , Saeed was examined by doctors in prison, and they did confirm that Saeed needed to be hospitalized for his internal bleeding,” resulting from his time in prison, Naghmeh Abedini said. On April 15, “he was taken early in the morning to the hospital, they said there was no doctor, and sometime in that day he was beaten” again, she added.
Saeed Abedini converted to Christianity in Iran in 2000. At the time, the conversion was legal and recognized by the government, which sanctioned his legal Christian marriage to Naghmeh shortly thereafter. From 2000 to 2005, he worked with both “building churches,” established churches with government licenses, and “house churches,” informal churches that meet at members’ homes. With the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, official attitudes towards Christian converts became more strained (please see our report, The Cost of Faith: Persecution of Christian Protestants and Converts in Iran, for more information).
Abedini stopped working with house churches, and instead worked with his family’s non-profit Setareh Derakhshan, “Morning Star,” which helps orphans with housing and education. After moving to the United States, Abedini became an American citizen in March 2010, but continued to travel to Iran to work with the orphanage. Between 2009 and 2012, he visited Iran upwards of 10 times, his wife told the Campaign.
“His heart goes out to those who are in prison with him,” Naghmeh Abedini told the Campaign.
The full interview with Naghmeh Abedini is below.
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI): After Saeed Abedini was arrested, when was the first time he contacted his family?
Naghmeh Abedini (NA): He was arrested September 26, which I believe is a Wednesday. . . . He was arrested on a Wednesday. We didn’t get a call until Sunday afternoon, and that’s because . . . we didn’t get any news from him, and so on a Sunday afternoon one of his family members went to a building church that knew Saeed, inside of Iran. That was a government-approved building church, and he told the pastor because he knew the pastor was in contact with [the] Iranian government. So he told the pastor to try to get a message across to a police, intelligence police of some sort. He told the pastor if his wife doesn’t know where he is, or if [he]’s alive, then she’s going to cause a lot of drama and media, she’s going to go to [the] media. So pretty much soon after he told the pastor to try to find . . . an intelligence police and tell them that, within a few hours Saeed called and he said, ‘I’m in Evin Prison; I’m in solitary confinement; I’m okay.’ That was the first time we heard where he was and how he was doing.
ICHRI: How was he, when you first spoke to him?
NA: He was confused. We were confused. We didn’t know what…. Because they had arrested him in 2009 because of work he had done from 2000 to 2005, but they’d let him go because he was no longer involved with house churches, so they had let him go in 2009 promising that they would not do anything against him if he did not, if he did humanitarian efforts like orphanages, . . . if he discontinued with the house church. They told him he could do efforts to help the country, to help the poor. So we were confused why he was arrested because he was doing exactly what the government was allowing him to do and approving. He was working—Saeed believes in obeying the law of the land, as a Christian, so he didn’t try to do anything that the government didn’t allow him to do.
ICHRI: What was he convicted of?
NA: He’s ‘undermining the Iranian security of government,’ the Iranian government, undermining the actual security, ‘through starting networks of house churches.’ And, what I’ve learned recently is that they said that it’s a ‘soft war.’ That’s what they call it, his Christian activity is a ‘soft war.’
ICHRI: Is this the only charge?
NA: Yes. This is the only charge that was brought up. We knew there [were] other charges that they were trying to bring against him but we’re not 100% what that is. The lawyer hasn’t really…. We know there was, at the proceeding, there [were] other charges that the prosecutor was trying to bring up against him. We don’t know exactly what that is. We know when we presented an appeal to the court . . . there was also an appeal sent by the prosecutor. We don’t know what that appeal is. His lawyer is trying to find out, but he believes that appeal by the prosecutor is that there should’ve been more charges. He was not happy with that one charge. But up to now there’s only that one charge.
ICHRI: But he hasn’t been involved in any business related to house churches, right?
NA: Yes, he wasn’t involved. The time he was involved, what people don’t understand is at the time he was involved with house churches it was legal, it was allowed. He became a Christian when [Mohammad] Khatami was president, in 2000, and when Saeed and I married, we had a legal Christian marriage. In our marriage certificate it says ‘Christian.’ So the government approved our conversion under Khatami. We had a Christian wedding and his house church movement was conducted under the government-approved building church. So the government was well aware of him going to a government-approved building church for Bible school, and through that Bible school is when he started the house churches.
So what they’re saying, they’re convicting him for what they call a ‘crime’ he did when it was legal! At that time the president allowed Saeed and I to convert; the conversion was approved by the government. The house church movement started under a building church. It wasn’t a network of house churches that was illegal, it was started from a building church that the government controlled, and the government was well aware of what the building church was doing. Only in 2005, when Ahmadinejad became president, is when we saw everything change. So the crime they’re trying to charge Saeed with happened when it was legal. It was allowed by the government; the government was more liberal.
ICHRI: Did the authorities allow him to have a lawyer?
NA: No. We were told from day one, we were told, I was in contact with some pretty good lawyers, human rights lawyers in Iran, and we were told the government was aware that I was trying to get a lawyer. They continually told and threatened us, they said, ‘Tell his wife,’ and they also told his family, ‘If you try to get any lawyers, they will be in prison as well. Don’t think lawyers can help you.’ So we didn’t really get a lawyer until a few weeks, actually maybe a month before we went to [the] media, because we decided to go with the lawyer when the situation for Saeed kept getting worse, and the accounts kept getting worse.
ICHRI: What changed your mind about getting a lawyer?
NA: We heard that he’d been beaten, that he was being threatened in prison, so that’s when we decided to not listen, not follow, not listen to the Iranian government anymore. We were hoping as we followed their requests of not getting a lawyer, not going to [the] media, we were hoping that this would actually help bring Saeed home quickly. But three months passed from their empty promises that they were going to let him out on bail, and if we didn’t go get a lawyer he would come out quickly, but three months had passed and he was beaten…. When we found out about his beating that’s when we decided to get a lawyer. They were making empty promises to us. They had no intention of releasing Saeed, they were just making us wait and not go to [the] media.
And Saeed had also told his family at one of the phone calls after solitary confinement—he was in solitary confinement from end of September until end of October—after solitary confinement he was able to make more phone calls to his family, and he told them, ‘They have no intention of letting me out.’ So they were just making empty promises and in December we decided to go to [the] media and get a lawyer.
ICHRI: You mentioned he was beaten. How is his health?
NA: Before the Iranian New Year [March 21, 2013], in early March, Saeed was examined by doctors in prison, and they did confirm that Saeed needed to be hospitalized for his internal bleeding. And the government promised they would do that last week. But because it was Iranian New Year so it took longer. Last week on Monday [April 15], so exactly a week ago, they took Saeed to a hospital to treat him, but it was—I believe it was a game, because they said there was no doctor there and even afterwards when the family was able to talk to Saeed, they learned that Saeed figured out it was a game too, because from the conversations between the guards you could tell they had no intention of treating him. So last week on Monday they took him to a hospital to be treated, they said there’s no doctors, and then they beat him. So we know there’s at least two beatings: one happened when he was in [Ward] 209 and they were interrogating him, and we know at least this one last week happened, too. The day they were supposed to take him to the hospital they beat him, and he’s suffering from more internal bleeding. And we know the name of the person who beat him, too, it’s Rafiee, he’s the head of that section [Ward 350]. It’s the best, I guess, ward to be in.
ICHRI: Do you have more specifics about the beatings?
NA: The recent one, we know the person who beat him, his name is Rafiee. If that’s his real name. It wasn’t slaps, it was actual blows into his stomach, where he was already bleeding. It was actual beating. What he was able to describe, there was three or four guards, they told him, ‘Come out, we’re going to take you to the hospital,’ and he could tell from their talking that there was something weird, they weren’t going to take him to the hospital. But from the beating, what he said was there was the head, he said his name was Rafiee, and he said I think there was at least three or four people. They actually had him down on the ground and beating him and especially in the area he was already bleeding, his stomach area.
ICHRI: And he was not treated afterward? He was taken to the prison afterward?
NA: The same day he was taken, he was taken early in the morning to the hospital, they said there was no doctor, and sometime in that day he was beaten.
His bleeding got worse, he told his family that there blood in his stool, he had a lot of pain in his stomach, and he was fainting even more. So he could tell the bleeding had gotten worse, because of the same thing, because of the blood in his stool. The family did immediately try to get treatment but they said it takes another one month or two months for the paperwork before they can take him to a hospital again. They said it could take another three months before they try to take him to the hospital again.
ICHRI: What is his current situation?
NA: We’re waiting for the appeals. We’re hoping, from what I hear from the lawyer we should have answers soon. So we’re hoping within the next week or two weeks we’ll have some answers on what our appeals court has decided. Medically he’s not doing very well. We need to get him treated to a hospital, but they’re saying that the paperwork will take another couple months. And what we heard from what happened in the court, his charge again ‘undermining national security’; they’re calling it a ‘soft war.’
ICHRI: Do you know about the appeals court date?
NA: I heard there was a hang-up, because he was supposed to get answered within a month after his conviction. [He was convicted in January and the family submitted the appeal the same week.] His lawyer followed up and we found out there was a hang-up: there was a prosecutor also turning in an appeal, but then there [were] also letters coming from Iranian representatives to the UN and different organizations, letters about Saeed. So that’s what caused the hang-up. This caused it to take a longer time, and that’s where it’s at right now. What we hear is that it’s taking a longer time to process because of all these requests that are coming from the UN and other organizations that are reaching out about Saeed. Recently, Argentina also got involved, and their president.
ICHRI: What is the latest development regarding the case?
NA: The last two months there’s been a lot of movement with different governments, more than 20 different governments. Their top officials, their presidents, vice presidents, have contacted Iran specifically in regard to Saeed. Recently Argentina was added to that list. [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry has spoken, and there’s a lot of pressure being put by the UN and different governments to release Saeed. And also, I spoke at a [US] Congressional hearing in March about religious freedom in Iran in general. So there’s been a lot of movement in terms of bringing awareness to religious freedom in Iran.
ICHRI: Since his conviction, does he have regular visits with his family?
NA: Yes. For a while he was in [Ward] 209 I believe, the political prison [ward], but it wasn’t general yet. But he could have visitors every other Thursday, so twice a month. But since his conviction in January he’s been moved to a better cell. It’s in general prison, it’s much better, and he has weekly visitations every Monday from his family.
ICHRI: Do you have any plans to go to Iran, too, to visit and follow up with the case?
NA: No, unfortunately when all of this happened, me and one of his sisters were out of the country. And we had planned to go back and visit him and we got serious threats that they would arrest us as well if we set foot into Iran. As a mother of two kids, I haven’t risked going back.
ICHRI: If you could talk to the Iranian authorities, to Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Judiciary, what would be your request? What would you ask for?
NA: Not just regarding Saeed, but really a lot of what I know from those who are in prison, there are actually people, especially the religious people, I’m sure there are other ones as well, especially the religious people they are very peaceful, and they have not done anything against the government. It’s unfortunate that the Iranian government and those in authority see any other religion other than their version as threats, and there’s all these religious minorities in prison, including other Muslims, and Baha’is, and Christians, and that the Iranian government would see it for what it is.
These people just want to practice what they believe, and the Iranian government I’m hoping would start changing their own laws and their behaviors towards religious minorities and allow for religious freedom. And realize these are not people who are a threat to the government, these are not where they should be focusing on. They should not be focusing on arresting and torturing these people. Their efforts should go elsewhere. These people are peace-loving people who want to practice what they believe. And it’s just not my husband. My husband has a heart for the Baha’is that are there, for the other Muslims that are there. There’s many different people that are in that prison unfortunately. I would ask the Iranian government authorities to reevaluate and reconsider their policy of treating them as political threats, which they are not. This is not about political threat, this is about religious freedom and human rights.
ICHRI: Anything to add?
NA: His heart goes out to those who are in prison with him.