Arrested last September while visiting family members in Iran, Abedini – a convert from Islam to Christianity who moved to the U.S. in 2005 – was sentenced in January to eight years’ imprisonment for “threatening the national security of Iran.” He is incarcerated at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is leading a campaign for his release and representing his wife and children in Boise, Idaho, reports troubling news from relatives’ visits to the prison – reports of continuing beatings, internal bleeding and fainting, denial of medical treatment and death threats from cellmates.
A letter from Abedini obtained by the ACLJ earlier this month recounted that prison authorities had told him, “Deny your faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam or else you will not be released from prison. We will make sure you are kept here even after your eight year sentence is finished.”
“I can not express in words how concerned I am about Saeed’s physical and mental health,” the pastor’s wife, Naghmeh, said in a statement released through the ACLJ.
“He is now continually attacked and threatened. The Iranian government should know that we are watching and aware of what they are doing to Saeed inside Evin prison. We need to speak louder until Saeed is home safely on U.S. soil.”
The maltreatment of the 32 year-old naturalized American citizen continues despite statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, first in January and then again last month, voicing concern about his plight and urging Iran to release him.
The ACLJ continues to encourage support for a petition, citing Iran’s violation of international treaty obligations and its own constitution, and urging the United Nations, European Union and Council of Europe to take “all available diplomatic action to press Iran to respect human rights and release Pastor Saeed.”
The petition had 568,434 signatures as of early Friday.
The ACLJ is also calling on people to write letters of support and encouragement to Abedini ahead of his May 7 birthday, which it aims to ensure will reach him in prison. More than 20,000 people have done so, using a simple online tool.
The reports of authorities exerting pressure on Abedini to renounce his faith recall the plight of another pastor who converted from Islam and fell foul of Iranian justice, Youcef Nadarkhani.
Imprisoned from October 2009 until last September, Nadarkhani during that period was sentenced to death for “apostasy,” pressurized for months to return to Islam, and finally acquitted last fall. (Convicted of an alternative offense, “evangelizing Muslims,” he was imprisoned for a further fortnight three months later, after being arrested on Christmas Day.)
The Nadarkhani case prompted protests from numerous Western governments, religious and human rights institutions, and galvanized millions of Christians around the world.