Iran’s government backtracked over the weekend, stating that no execution order had been announced for Youcef Nadarkhani, and that he was being held not for apostasy, but for rape and “other crimes,” according to the Islamic Republic’s state-controlled Press TV.
Nadarkhani’s attorneys believe the government toned down its rhetoric in response to an international outcry. The execution order, however, remained in effect, they said.
Supporters fear Nadarkhani, a 34-year-old father of two who was arrested more than two years ago on charges of apostasy, fear he may be executed at any time, as death sentences in Iran can be carried out immediately or dragged out for years.
Others fear Nadarkhani will be used in broader political negotiations as Iran endures crippling sanctions and international pressure in response to its nuclear agenda and rogue discourse. The number of executions in Iran has increased significantly in the last month.
“If a human being becomes a bargaining chip for the ayatollah, that’s not a situation that will lead to anything positive,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a human rights advocacy group that has led international campaigns to free Nadarkhani.
“When it’s a high-profile case, they test the international community’s reaction to these stories and how they change as geopolitical priorities shift.”
Iran’s judiciary, fearing its ultimate decision will have far-reaching political implications, has been caught in a bind in determining Nadarkhani’s fate.
Should the court release the pastor, it will appear disrespectful of the tenets of Shariah, or Islamic law, which call for an apostate to be put to death. If it executes him, it will face increasing criticism from the international community that continues to petition for the Nadarkhani’s release.
Dozens of human rights groups along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 89 members of Congress, and leaders from the European Union, France, Great Britain, Mexico and Germany have condemned Iran for arresting Nadarkhani and have called for his quick release.
Congress has scheduled a vote as early as Wednesday on House Resolution 556, which condemns the Iranian government and calls for the pastor’s quick release.
Nadarkhani converted to Christianity at 19 and came under the Islamic regime’s radar in 2006 when he applied for his church to be registered with the state. He was arrested and soon released, according to sources.
In 2009 he went to local officials to complain about Islamic indoctrination in his school district, arguing that his children should not be forced to learn about Islam.
He was subsequently arrested and found guilty of apostasy by a lower court in Gilan, a province in Rasht, where he and his family live.
The court gave Nadarkhani a chance to recant and return to Islam, but he refused.
Death sentences for apostates in Shariah Law are prescribed both by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s penal code. Article 225 of the Iranian penal code states, "Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death," and "Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death.”
While all religious minorities in Iran, including Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, have faced various forms of persecution and political and social marginalization, the government saves its harshest retribution for those who have abandoned Islam.