Analysts closely watching developments in Iran since the election of President Hasan Rouhani viewed as significant a decision by Tehran to release more than a dozen political prisoners ahead of his trip to New York. Some called it the most tangible sign yet of a new approach, signaled in an exchange of letters between Rouhani and President Obama and relatively positive comments by the Iranian leader.
Among those freed was a prominent human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was two-and-a-half years into a six-year prison term (reduced on appeal from an original 11-year sentence) for “crimes against national security” and “propaganda against the regime,” charges widely regarded as trumped-up by the regime.
Her release Thursday comes days before the one-year anniversary of the arrest in Iran of Saeed Abedini, a American citizen, convert from Islam and ordained evangelical pastor, who like Sotoudeh was convicted on dubious charges – “crimes against national security” – and sentenced last January to eight years’ imprisonment. Supporters say his real “crime” was sharing his Christian faith.
Abedini is incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, and despite appeals by the Obama administration – although not yet Obama personally – U.S. lawmakers and hundreds of thousands of people who have signed petitions calling for his release, Iran’s Revolutionary Court last month rejected his appeal and refused to reduce his sentence.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Abedini’s wife and children in Boise, Idaho, welcomed news of the prisoner releases, but said it was “past time” for Iran to free the pastor too.
“His only crime is his Christian faith, he presents no threat to Iranian national security, and he only wants to return home to his family in Idaho,” ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow said Thursday. “There is simply no just cause for continuing a prison sentence that violates not only the Iranian constitution but also international human rights conventions.”
Sekulow said there would be “no better time for President Rouhani to release this American pastor than during his first trip to American soil.”
More than 620,000 people have signed an ACLJ-organized petition calling for freedom for Abedini, and in a separate campaign almost 62,000 people have sent letters to Rouhani, asking for the same thing.
Abedini helped to lead house churches in Iran before moving to the U.S. in 2005. In 2010 he was granted U.S. citizenship through marriage to Naghmeh, his American wife. He was arrested while visiting family in Iran last fall and convicted and sentenced in January.
On September 26, the anniversary of his arrest, prayer vigils are being organized in more than 70 cities across the U.S. and at least 13 countries around the world, calling for his release and on governments to take diplomatic action on his behalf.
The same day, Rouhani is due to speak during a General Assembly high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament. (His main address in New York, during the “general debate,” will have taken place two days earlier, as will Obama’s.)
Sekulow noted that Obama has not yet spoken publicly about Abedini. The ACLJ and the pastor’s family have called on the president to “elevate” the case by doing so.
“We realize that international attention – including a statement by President Obama which has yet to come – is a critical part of a global strategy to keep the spotlight on Iran, to keep this urgent human and religious rights case at the forefront,” Sekulow said.
“We are hopeful that on this anniversary of his captivity, governments around the globe will redouble their diplomatic efforts on behalf of Pastor Saeed.”
Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power on her Twitter account Thursday welcomed Sotoudeh’s release, but said it was “far from enough,” and that others “missing of unjustly detained” must be returned home.
She cited Abedini as well as Amir Hekmati, a U.S. citizen being detained on what Kerry described recently as “false espionage charges,” and Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran in March 2007. The FBI last year offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his safe recovery and return home.