Naghmeh Abedini, the American wife of Saeed Abedini, issued a statement through the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) after learning that a Tehran court had rejected his appeal and refused to reduce the sentence handed down last January.
“The news out of Iran is devastating to our family,” she said of the appeal decision, which came three weeks after Iran inaugurated a “moderate” new president.
Abedini, a 33 year-old ordained evangelical pastor and convert from Islam, has already been behind bars for almost a year since his arrest last September while visiting family members in Iran. He is incarcerated at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where he reportedly has faced beatings and abuse, denial of medical treatment, and death threats from other inmates
The ACLJ, which is representing his wife and children, has led international efforts to draw attention to his plight and campaign for his release. Largely as a result of those efforts, Secretary of State John Kerry called for his release last January, and again in March.
Spokesmen for the State Department and White House also issued statements in January, but in recent months the only official administration reference to Abedini’s situation was a mention in a speech at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) on June 10.
During a general debate at the Geneva-based council on that day, U.S. envoy Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said the U.S. “deeply concerned about the arrest, conviction, and reports of abuse in Iran of individuals, like the seven Iranian leaders of the Baha’i faith and Iranian-American citizen Saeed Abedini, who are serving long prison sentences on charges related to their religious beliefs. We reiterate our call for the Iranian government to provide Mr. Abedini needed medical attention and to release these prisoners immediately.”
Naghmeh Abedini wondered Monday why Obama himself had not spoken out on behalf of her husband who, she said, “is wasting away in an Iranian prison because he chose to practice his God-given right to choose his religion.”
“As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic speech defending freedom by Dr. Martin Luther King, a brave American who gave his life to fight for the freedom that is so fundamental to our way of life, I am extremely disappointed that President Obama has chosen to remain silent on this critical human and religious rights case of an American imprisoned in Iran.”
The ACLJ said that after the “deeply troubling” court decision it and Abedini’s family were exploring all legal and governmental options available, including ways “to bring more pressure on Iran from the U.S. and other countries around the world.”
“While we remained hopeful that Iran would use its own appeal process to finally show respect for Pastor Saeed’s basic human rights, again Iran has demonstrated an utter disregard for the fundamentals of human rights,” said executive director Jordan Sekulow.
Naghmeh Abedini said the family may lodge an appeal with Iran’s Supreme Court or plead for supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to intervene.
“From past cases, we know that the decision to release my husband lies solely at the mercy of the supreme leader.”
The ACLJ noted that one of the two judges who turned down Abedini’s appeal, Judge Ahmad Zargar, has been sanctioned by the European Union.
A 2011 E.U. document says Zargar “confirmed long-term jail warrants and death warrants against protestors” – a reference to Iranians convicted after protested against the outcome of Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.
Zargar is the second judge involved in Abedini’s case who is subject to E.U. sanctions for abuses. His conviction and eight-year sentence was handed down in January by Judge Abbas Pir-Abbassi, who according to the E.U. “is in charge of post-election cases, issued long prison sentences during unfair trials against human rights activists and has issued several death sentences for protesters.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2012 annual report named Pir-Abbassi as one of three Islamic Revolutionary Court judges “responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
On September 26, the anniversary of Abedini’s arrest, the ACLJ says prayer vigils will be held around the country and abroad, in “a united effort to call attention to Pastor Saeed’s plight” and press for his release.
An ACLJ-organized petition addressed to Obama, Kerry and Congress, urging “all available diplomatic and legislative action to pressure Iran to respect religious freedom and release Pastor Saeed,” has been signed by more than 270,000 people.
A second petition, addressed to the U.N., E.U. and Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, carries almost 620,000 signatures.
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. They have two young children and live in Idaho.