03/30/2024, 09.00
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Easter in Iran: convert asylum seeker sentenced to two years after returning home

After waiting in vain for asylum in Malaysia where she converted to Christianity, Laleh Saati, 45, returned to Iran. A local court found her guilty of acting "against national security” based on alleged links to " Zionist Christian organisations". The video of her baptism was entered as “evidence” of her “crime”.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – A Christian convert from Islam, who was baptised in a church in Malaysia where she had temporarily moved, was convicted after her return to Iran and handed down a two-year sentence for acting "against national security".

Laleh Saati, 45, was accused of alleged links with “Zionist Christian organisations”,.

Ms Laleh returned to her country in 2017, frustrated by delays in her asylum application in Malaysia, and her desire to be reunited with her elderly parents.

According to Article 18, an NGO dedicated to religious freedom in Iran, once she arrived home, she was summoned and questioned on several occasions by intelligence agents.

The harassment continued for years until it culminated, on 13 February, with her arrest at her father's home in Ekbatan, a suburb of Tehran.

Afterwards, she was taken to Evin prison, an infamous penitentiary on the outskirts of the capital, and placed in Ward 209, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Intelligence.

Inside, she was subjected to repeated interrogations over the course of three weeks, during which she was shown pictures and videos that allegedly "prove" her "Christian activities", including her baptism dating back to her time in Malaysia, all "evidence" of her "crime".

She was eventually moved to the prison’s women's wing. On 16 March, she appeared before Judge Iman Afshari, at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, who reportedly asked her why she took the risk of returning to Iran and facing a court case, “given that you have done such things (Christian activities) outside of Iran”.

In addition to the two years in prison, Laleh is banned from travelling for an additional two years once she is released. It is not known whether bail has been set for her, nor whether she plans to appeal against the sentence.

For Article 18’s director, Mansour Borji, “immigration authorities around the world should take note" of the ruling before turning down asylum applications by Iranians “who may face persecution upon return to their country of origin.”

“Surprised” at the speed with which the case progressed through the courts, Borji noted that it “clearly shows that the Christian activities of asylum seekers in foreign countries can be used against them in court proceedings back in Iran.”

Meanwhile, more and more Christians are being arrested and convicted only for practising their religion, at home or abroad, or for converting from Islam; many often choose not to report it for fear that the publicity of their case could lead to even worse treatment.

The wave of persecution is highlighted in a report released on 19 February titled Faceless Victims: Rights Violations Against Christians in Iran, produced by Article 18 in cooperation  with other leading NGOs, like Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), and Middle East Concern.

The study confirms the “sharp regression" of religious freedom in Iran, with arrests and hangings linked to the protests that broke out in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s morality police.

Despite a comparable number of arrests, 166 in 2023 against 134 in 2022, many more nameless and faceless Christians have been caught up in Iran’s justice system.

The 2023 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, released in May 2023, reached similar conclusions, calling the Islamic Republic a "country of particular concern (CPC)" for its "systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of religious freedom”.

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