Detained since December 2013, Soheil Arabi received the new sentence on 6 September when he was retried by a Tehran assizes court.
During the next two years, Arabi is required to seek answers to his religious doubts by reading 13 books on theology and Islam, writing summaries of them and writing an essay on theology and religion. He must conduct regular written correspondence with the Imam Khomeini Centre for Religious Research, copies of which will be submitted to the court. He must also write quarterly reports to the court with the aim of proving his repentance and renewed faith. If he fails, the death sentence could be reimposed.
“Soheil Arabi has been spared immediate execution but this new sentence is medieval,” said Reza Moini, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Iran/Afghanistan desk.
“A defendant who repeatedly said he did not want to offend religion is being subjected to a form of arbitrary torture because the Ali Khamenei-controlled judicial system wants to scare Internet users. This sentence is tantamount to forced labour, which is banned by international and Iranian law. We call on the UN special rapporteurs to intercede to get it quashed.”
A photographer and father who was 31 when arrested by Revolutionary Guards on 27 December 2013, he was incarcerated in Security Section 2a of Tehran’s Evin prison, where he was subjected to solitary confinement for two months and was mistreated with the aim of getting him to confess to his role in creating a Facebook network that blasphemed Islam and criticized the government. Prosecutors then used this confession against him.
At the end of an unfair trial in March 2014, a Tehran revolutionary court sentenced him to three years in prison, a fine of 500,000 tomans and 30 lashes on charges of anti-government propaganda, “insulting what is sacred” and insulting government officials and the Supreme Leader. A Tehran appeal court confirmed the sentence.
However, as a result of Revolutionary Guard pressure, Arabi was brought before an assizes court on 19 August 2014 on new charges of “insulting the Prophet of Islam, the Shiite Holy Imams and the Koran,” and the court sentenced him to death under article 262 of Iran’s Islamic penal code.
The court ignored his lawyer’s claims that his offences were not deliberate and that he was not the only person posting on these Facebook pages. In fact, although Arabi supervised several Facebook pages, most of the posts were made by other Facebook users or administrators.
His lawyer also tried unsuccessfully to draw the court’s attention to article 263, which says: “when the accused (...) confesses that his insulting statement was made under coercion or by mistake or in a state of drunkenness or anger or in a slip of the tongue or without paying attention to the meaning of the words or quoting someone else, then he shall not be considered as having insulted the Prophet.”
The supreme court upheld Arabi’s death sentence on 23 November 2014.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on 2 December 2014 voicing alarm about Arabi’s fate and urging him to “intercede as quickly as possible with the Iranian authorities in order to prevent his execution and to request the overturning of his conviction and his release.”
As a result of the efforts of his family and lawyers, and intercession by UN rapporteurs on 27 June, the case was referred back to the supreme court, which finally quashed Arabi’s death sentence.
Iran is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.