(New York) – Iran’s judiciary should vacate the death sentence of a 30-year-old man who faces imminent execution for Facebook posts linked to his account. On November 24, 2014, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld a criminal court ruling sentencing Soheil Arabi to hang. The court transferred his file to the judiciary’s implementation unit, opening the way for his execution.
A Tehran criminal court had convicted him in August of sabb al-nabbi, or “insulting the prophet,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death penalty. Arabi’s legal team has asked the judiciary to suspend the death sentence and review the case.
“It is simply shocking that anyone should face the gallows simply because of Internet postings that are deemed to be crude, offensive, or insulting,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Iran should urgently revise its penal code to eliminate provisions that criminalize peaceful free expression, especially when they punish its exercise with death.”
Nastaran Naimi, Arabi’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence agents linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested her and her husband at their home in Tehran in November 2013. They soon released her but transferred her husband to a special section of Evin prison that the Revolutionary Guards control, where they kept him in solitary confinement for two months, subjected him to long interrogation sessions, and prevented him from meeting his lawyer, she said. They later transferred Arabi to Ward 350 of Evin prison.
Vahid Moshkhani, Arabi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that instead of upholding or overruling the lower court verdict, the Supreme Court unlawfully added the charge of efsad-e fel arz, or “sowing corruption of earth,” to Arabi’s case. In addition to carrying a possible death sentence, the charge also forecloses the possibility of amnesty, he said.
Moshkani said the Supreme Court rejected his client’s defense that he had not written many of the Facebook posts and that he was merely sharing others’ views on the social media site. Article 263 of the revised Islamic Penal Code provides that a person who “insults the Prophet” while drunk or by quoting others, among other acts, will be subjected to 74 lashes and not sentenced to death.
The lower court verdict, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, relied on Arabi’s confessions and “available images and printouts” attributed to his Facebook page, and concluded that his actions “constitute clear proof” that he insulted the Prophet Muhammad and should be sentenced to death. On September 4, 2013, judiciary officials sentenced Arabi to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” in a separate case stemming from the same Facebook posts.
Naimi said that her husband’s interrogators subjected him to psychological pressure and threatened to prosecute and convict him if he did not take responsibility for posting offensive material on his Facebook page. She said the first time Arabi was able to meet with his lawyer was just before his trial, though judiciary officials allowed his lawyer to review the case file prior to mounting a defense. She said she has yet to tell their 5-year-old daughter that her father is in prison and at imminent risk of execution, but rather, “We’ve told her that he’s gone away for work.”
On November 28, 2014, an Iranian news site published a story alleging that Arabi had been given a death sentence not for having “insulted the prophet,” but because he had raped several women. The news site said it had evidence to back up this claim but did not produce any information. In response, Saham News, a site critical of the Iranian government, published pictures of the lower court verdict to counter any claim that the judiciary had prosecuted Arabi for rape or illicit sexual relations, and one of his lawyers denied that his client had ever been prosecuted for such a crime. The judiciary has not commented on allegations that Arabi has been charged or convicted for sexual assault.
The circumstances surrounding the recent execution of another man, Mohsen Amir Aslani, have increased concerns for Arabi. On September 24, prison officials at Rajai Shahr prison in the city of Karaj executed Amir Aslani, whom the judiciary had convicted of “sowing corruption on earth” for allegedly advancing heretical interpretations of Islam and insulting the prophet Jonah. After the execution, a judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaeili, denied that authorities had executed Amir Aslani for his religious beliefs, and said his hanging was related to “illicit” forcible sexual relations with several women. In fact, the Supreme Court had overturned Amir Aslani’s death sentence on three separate occasions, and ruled that the rape charges were invalid due to lack of evidence.
Human Rights Watch previously expressed concern regarding the broad definition of “sowing corruption on earth” in the revised penal code, under which authorities can prosecute, convict, and sentence political dissidents and others exercising their basic rights to freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion. Human Rights Watch is opposed to the death penalty in all cases, due to its inherently cruel and irreversible nature.
Iran is one of the world’s most prolific jailers of writers, according to Reporters Without Borders. As of July, at least 65 journalists, bloggers, and social media activists were in prison on various charges related to their speech or writings. Since President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration in August 2013, security and intelligence agents, including the Revolutionary Guards, have apparently stepped up a crackdown on dissent through the Internet, and Iran’s judiciary has meted out particularly harsh punishments for bloggers and social media users.
In May 2014, police arrested four young men and three women after a video showing them dancing to the popular song “Happy” went viral on YouTube. Authorities released them to face trial on charges that included engaging in “illicit relations.” In the same month, a Tehran revolutionary court sentenced eight Facebook users to prison terms ranging from eight to 21 years for allegedly posting messages to insult government officials and “religious sanctities,” among other crimes.