Iran's notorious Islamic Revolutionary Court on Sunday convicted Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, of "threatening the national security" by leading house churches years ago, and sentenced him to eight years in Tehran's Evin Prison. Saeed's wife was "devastated" on hearing the news.
On Sunday morning, Judge Pir-Abassi of Branch 26 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court – known as the "hanging judge" – verbally convicted and sentenced Pastor Saeed to eight years in prison, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing the pastor's family in the United States.
The court defied Iranian law, which requires a written verdict.
The sentencing was based on the evidence of Pastor Saeed's Christian activities primarily during the early 2000s, when house churches were not perceived as a threat under President Khatami.
Since it was the Iranian Revolutionary Court – designed to try those suspected of smuggling, blaspheming, inciting violence or trying to overthrow the Iranian government and known for its swift and harsh sentences – the conviction and sentencing of Pastor Saeed must have required approval by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, ACJL points out.
The sentencing follows raising of a false hope by court authorities.
A court administrator told a family friend of the pastor that his lawyer should come to court because Saeed would be released soon. The lawyer, Dr. Naser Sarbazi, had no formal notice that his presence was required, and Saeed's family was not informed about the date for the conviction.
"The promise of his release was a lie," ACJL quoted Saeed's wife Naghmeh as saying after the verdict. "We should not trust the empty words or promises put out by the Iranian government. 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. With today's development I am devastated for my husband and my family."
Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ's Executive Director, called the conviction "a real travesty." Iran, he said, "has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights." An American citizen, who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, faces a lengthy prison term simply because of his Christian faith, he added. "Pastor Saeed now faces eight years in a harsh prison – likely facing life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime."
The citizens of the world must rise up in protest, Sekulow said. "We call on governments around the world to stand and defend Pastor Saeed. As his wife has pleaded, starting with our own government, every effort must be pursued. We are calling on the State Department and the White House, which have both called for Pastor Saeed's release, to engage further.
"We must now pursue every effort, turn every rock, and not stop until Saeed is safely on American soil," Saeed's wife urged.
Last Friday, the U.S. State Department and the White House condemned the imprisonment of Saeed, calling on Iran to release him.
"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal rights of freedom of religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini's human rights and to release him," Department of State Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said during the daily news briefing at the State Department.
While there were concerns over a possible death sentence for Pastor Saeed, there was also hope that Iran would respond to Washington's call for his release.
Pastor Saeed's trial began last Monday, when prosecutors alleged he has a politically subversive influence on young people and therefore poses a threat to the national security. The pastor and his attorney were barred from the court during a hearing the following day as lay church leaders were reportedly forced to testify against Saeed.
Saeed – who grew up in Iran before converting to Christianity at the age of 20 – traveled with his family back and forth between Iran and the U.S. several times in the past few years to meet his family and for Christian work. During one such trip in 2009, he was detained by Iranian officials and interrogated for his conversion. While he was released with a warning against engaging in any more underground church activities, he was once again arrested last July while working on a non-sectarian orphanage project.