03/15/2006, 00.00
IRAN
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Pastor converted from Islam may be freed

Hamid Pourmand, already imprisoned for 18 months because of his faith, may benefit from an annual amnesty given to detainees between 11 February and 21 March.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – There is hope for the imminent release of Hamid Pourmand, an Iranian Protestant pastor imprisoned for his faith. The Christian's lawyer hopes his client will be released within the month, thanks to an annual amnesty conceded to detainees between 11 February – the anniversary of the 1989 Islamic Revolution – and 21 March, which marks the start of the Iranian New Year. Some time ago, the lawyer presented a petition, requesting that Hamid benefit from this amnesty, and good relations between the pastor and prison authorities are pushing hopes up.

"We don't know how the authorities will respond to the appeal," a local Christian in contact with the pastor's lawyer, told the agency Compass Direct. "However, what we do know is that prison officials and guards have established good relations with Pourmand in recent months." The Christian is held in Evin prison in Tehran.

Married with two children, the pastor has been in prison for 18 months: last November, he was given permission to visit his family for three days every month. At Christmas he was allowed to make a special visit, not least thanks to international lobbying on his behalf. "They are all very courteous to him," continued the anonymous source. The prison authorities have even stopped putting pressure on him to convert from Christianity and to return to Islam.

If the Iranian authorities accept the release appeal, Pourmand's lawyer said he thinks he will be freed around 21 March. If this does not transpire, however, Hamid will have to serve all three years of imprisonment handed down by the court.

Pourmand converted to Christianity in 1980. He was arrested on 8 September 2004 when Iranian police raided a meeting of the Assembly of God, the Protestant denomination he is a pastor of. At the time, he was a colonel in the Iranian army.

In May 2005, an Islamic court threw out the charges of apostasy and proselytism levelled against the pastor, for which he faced the death penalty. However, the sentence handed down by the martial court of three years of detention stood; he was sentenced for hiding his conversion from his superiors. Islamic law in Iran does not allow a non-Muslim to form part of the army in the rank of official. Following his condemnation, Pourmand was sacked and deprived of his salary, pension and lodging for his family. He has always maintained that his superiors were aware of his faith.

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