IRAN: Joseph Shahbazian’s sentence reduced to two years after retrial

Joseph ShahbazianJoseph Shahbazian (59), an ethnic Armenian Christian who was imprisoned in August 2022 for leading house church services, has had his ten-year prison sentence reduced to two years after a retrial on 24 May.

The Court of Appeal in Tehran stated that there was “no sufficient reason for choosing the maximum punishment” specified in Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code and it therefore reduced the sentence to two years.

The court also threw out an additional sentence of two years’ internal exile in a remote province in the southeast of Iran that was to be imposed following Joseph’s imprisonment, but he will still face a two-year ban on membership of any political or social group, will be prohibited from travelling abroad for two years and will have to register his presence on a quarterly basis with police.

Article 18’s advocacy director Mansour Borji commented, “It is great that both the supreme and appeal court have acknowledged the unmerited and cruel maximum punishment that was handed down to Mr Shahbazian. However, it is disappointing that they have failed to recognise and uphold his rights as a citizen to worship peacefully and freely without the fear of cohesion and prosecution. Joseph has not done anything illegal to deserve two years in prison.

Praying or taking part in a Bible study with other Christians is every citizen’s right according to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which emphasises that ‘everyone has the right to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance either alone or in community with others and in public or private’.”

Arrest, conviction and sentence

Joseph was arrested in June 2020 in a raid on a Tehran house church during a two-day series of coordinated raids carried out by Revolutionary Guards on Christian homes and house churches in three cities (Tehran, Karaj and Malayer). He was charged with “acting against national security by promoting Zionist Christianity” and was eventually released on bail in August 2020 after the reduction of a record bail amount that his family had been unable to pay.

In May 2022 Joseph was convicted of “founding or leading an organisation that aims to disrupt national security” and a month later he was sentenced to ten years in prison followed by two years in internal exile.

Joseph lost his appeal in August 2022 and was summoned to Evin Prison to begin serving his sentence, but on 25 February 2023 the Supreme Court granted a retrial of his case, saying the sentence of ten years was “not appropriate” as both the Revolutionary and appeal courts had found “no reason, evidence, or document” to prove he led a house church. The judges concluded that “therefore, determining the maximum punishment is not reasonable and faces judicial problems”.

Malihe NazariSix other Christians arrested in the same series of raids as Joseph and tried alongside him for house-church leadership or membership were given shorter sentences and are not currently in prison. One of them, Malihe Nazari (pictured), who was serving a six-year sentence, was pardoned and released in April 2023 because her son is seriously ill with leukaemia.

Read Joseph Shahbazian’s Prisoner Profile.

(Article 18)