Detained: July 28, 2012
Saeed Abedini, an American pastor, was arrested July 2012 in Iran because of his involvement in Iranian Christian house churches. He was convicted of undermining national security through his private gatherings in Christian homes and was sentenced to eight years in prison by a judge who has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations. As is the case with many ShowTrials, Abedini’s trial was fraught with injustices and misinformation. Also common of ShowTrials, Abedini’s family members were thrust to the forefront of a complex crisis involving media, international negotiations, and inscrutable foreign legal processes. Common for cases in Iran, the families of the imprisoned are left to navigate and negotiate on their own or through unconventional means, since the United States does not have a formal diplomatic relationship with Iran. Despite the immense challenges in this case, Saeed Abedini’s wife—Naghmeh Abedini—has transformed into a leader and private diplomat on behalf of her husband, and has continued to fight for his release.
Saeed Abedini is an American pastor, father, and husband. He converted from Islam to Christianity in 2000 while he was living in Iran. Though Christianity is recognized as a minority religion under the Iranian Constitution, Christians are often discriminated against. Christians from a Persian background are not allowed to worship together in established churches, which led to an underground “house” church movement.
In 2002, Abedini met his wife, an American citizen. Together, they became prominent in the house church movement. At the time, house churches were tolerated; however, the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to a crack down on the house church movement. This lead to the Abedinis’ decision to move to the United States. Saeed became an ordained minister in 2008 and was granted American citizenship in 2010.
Abedini was detained on his first trip back to Iran in 2009. He was ultimately released after he signed an agreement promising to stop all involvement in house church activities. He did stop his involvement and visited Iran nine more times without incident. At the recommendation of the government he began building a non-secretarian orphanage outside the city of Rasht.
“He was sentenced by a judge who has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations.”
Abedini visited Iran in July of 2012 in order to finalize the board members of the orphanage. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stopped Abedini’s bus, confiscated his passports, and detained him. He was subjected to intense interrogations where he was told he must face criminal charges for his Christian faith. Abedini was then placed under house arrest. After nine weeks of house arrest, five men showed up at Abedini’s parent’s house. They barged through the door, confiscated all communication devices, and placed Abedini under arrest. He was detained in Evin Prison, which is notorious for housing political prisoners.
Abedini was detained without being formally told his charges. Informally, he was told he would be charged for threatening the national security of Iran and espionage. He was initially denied access to an attorney and subjected to violent interrogations and beatings by prison guards and his cellmates, who self-identified as members of Al Qaeda.
The judge presiding over Abedini’s case has been labeled a “hanging judge” for his notoriously harsh sentencing. He was sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations. Abedini’s lawyer, Dr. Sarbazi, was restricted from seeing his client’s court file until a week before the trial started, and was not able to meet Abedini until the day before the trial. This gave him them less than twenty-four hours to prepare a defense.
“He was told he must face criminal charges for his Christian faith… practicing Christianity is legal, according to the Iranian Constitution”
After only being given one day to present the defense, Abedini and his lawyer were banned from entering the courtroom while the prosecution presented their case. In order to ease international pressure, Iranian authorities released reports stating Abedini would be released on bail. However, after several attempts by Abedini’s family to prepare the necessary documents for bail, they were repeatedly turned down or not approved.
Though practicing Christianity is legal, according to the Iranian Constitution, Abedini was convicted of undermining national security because of his peaceful Christian gatherings in Iran during the early 2000s. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
His appeal had been rejected by a two-judge panel who also refused to reduce the eight-year sentence. One of the judges who oversaw the appeal has been sanctioned by the European Union for issuing long-term and death sentences for peaceful protesters.
Due to repeated beatings, Abedini suffered from internal bleeding and infections. His defense team claimed he was in dire need of medical care and surgery, but was continually refused the necessary treatment.
CURRENT STATUS / AFTERMATH
On January 16, 2016, the U.S government confirmed the release of Abedini and three other Americans as part of a prisoner swap with Iran. After the release, Abedini and the three other Americans flew from Iran to Switzerland on a Swiss plane and then brought to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment.
Abedini was reunited with his family a week later.