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Iranian death sentence commuted to compulsory reading of 13 religious books

Soheil Arabi
Soheil Arabi
Soheil Arabi ordered to read 13 religious books and serve 90 days in prison after court annuls original sentence

An Iranian man who was on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad has had his sentence commuted to reading 13 religious books and studying theology for two years.

Soheil Arabi, 31, was arrested by members of the Iranian revolutionary guards in November 2013 in connection with Facebook postings which the Iranian judiciary deemed insulting to the founder of Islam. He was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

A higher court annulled his death penalty, and his new sentence, which includes a 90-day jail term, emerged this week. Arabi will not be coming out of prison time any time soon, as he is also serving a separate seven-and-a-half-year sentence for allegedly insulting the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, alongside similar charges.

The commuting of Arabi’s death sentence is the first such decision to have been taken by a judiciary court in Iran. It is not clear how many people are on death row in the country for blasphemy, heresy or other religious grounds. Last year a 37-year-old man was executed after being found guilty of insulting the prophet Jonah, making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.

The state-owned Jamejam newspaper said Arabi was required to prepare a five-10-page summary of each of the 13 religious books he must read. He then has to write an article about religion and reference at least five -10 of those books. He should study theology for two years and report to the authorities every three months on his progress.

Amnesty welcomed the development but said Arabi should not have been jailed in the first place. Nassim Papayiann, Amnesty’s campaigner on Iran, said: “International law clearly protects the right to criticise political leaders and religious institutions, even if the criticisms are thought to be shocking or offensive. A sentence that requires an individual to serve time in prison, study theology and read certain books as a punishment, if handed down for peacefully exercised their freedom of expression, clearly tramples over a range of rights, including the right to freedom of belief.”

Amnesty has raised alarms in recent years about Iran’s ongoing crackdown on internet users, especially those active on Facebook. “The increasing, and sometimes creative, ways in which the Iranian authorities are cracking down on freedom of expression, particularly on social media, is truly alarming and goes counter to the fundamental principles of human rights,” Papayianni said.

Iran’s judiciary, dominated by hardliners, operates independently of President Hassan Rouhani’s government and is at times at odds with the administration’s drive for more social freedoms. Some analysts believe that the judiciary is tightening its grip to send a signal that it is will resist Rouhani’s repeated calls for reform. Rouhani, meanwhile, has largely remained quiet about human rights violations in the country.

Source: The Guardian, Sept. 30, 2015

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