CAIRO, Egypt As western powers prepare to ease economic sanctions against Iran as part of a new nuclear non-proliferation treaty, human rights activists say leverage for prisoners of faith is being undercut.
An unnamed human rights advocate and researcher who monitors Iran for Christian Solidarity Worldwide told Morning Star News his colleagues in different human rights groups were concerned when they learned human rights had not been part of the negotiations with Iran, specifically about prisoners of faith. In the quest to obtain some sort of agreement with the Iranians, they said pursuit of basic rights for Christians and other religious minorities was set aside.
"When negotiations [with the Iranians] take place, human rights has to be on the agenda," said the advocate, whose name was not disclosed for security reasons.
"Otherwise, if you give all these concessions over to Iran, they have no motivation or reason to do anything about human rights," he told Morning Star News, a key monitor of international religious liberty.
Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a legal group advocating on behalf of imprisoned U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini, said negotiators "didn't use the opportunity and leverage they had right in front of them."
Abedini, a convert from Islam, arguably is the best-known among Christians imprisoned for their faith in Iran. Abedini went to Iran in July 2012 to continue setting up an orphanage in the city of Rashat when Islamic Revolutionary Guards placed him under house arrest at his parents' home and prohibited him from leaving the country. Two months later, the Revolutionary Guards returned, arrested Abedini and eventually transferred him to Evin Prison in Tehran.
Accused of taking part in the house church movement, Abedini was found guilty of "undermining national security" and on Jan. 27 sentenced to eight years in prison. He lost an appeal of the sentence in August.
Abedini's case has received more attention than usual since September, when Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, presented a letter to the Iranian delegation to the United Nations during an official visit of recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The same week, U.S. President Barack Obama talked with Rouhani about Abedini during a phone conversation.
Yet, things subsequently took a turn for the worse. Without giving any reason why, Abedini was moved Nov. 3 to Rajaei-Shahr Prison in Karaj, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Tehran. According to the ACLJ, Rajaei-Shahr Prison is known for its harsh conditions and violent inmates.
"He is the only political prisoner in a cell with murders and rapists," the ACLJ's Barrans said.
Still, Naghmeh Abedini was hopeful in the lead-up to diplomatic meetings between the United States and Iran that her husband would be released as a good-will gesture. But by Sunday, Nov. 24, when the non-proliferation agreement was announced, there was no word that Abedini would be freed. Barrans said Naghmeh Abedini was devastated and "doesn't know how to explain to her children that he is not coming home for Christmas again."
After the nuclear deal was announced, Naghmeh Abedini told Fox News she doesn't see "any more leverage left."
"Iran has no incentive for them to release him. I don't think we have any more leverage," she said. "We now have to consider other avenues and having other countries speak out because our country when we could have used our leverage chose to stay silent."
Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, confirmed to Fox News that the Iran talks "focused exclusively on nuclear issues," though she said the U.S. "has certainly raised" Abedini's case and that of other prisoners as part of bilateral discussions.
Part of the concern about Abedini's situation is his health. He suffers from a stomach condition that has been worsened by intensive interrogation sessions. According to members of his family, he has internal bleeding that is going untreated.
An advocate with the human rights agency Middle East Concern (MEC) who requested anonymity told Morning Star News, "It's well-established that the regime doesn't provide very effective medical care within the prison system, and there are many prisoners in Iran who are suffering from medical complaints."
Iranian pastor Behnam Irani, who has served more than 900 days in prison, also has suffered from major health issues without adequate treatment, according to World News Service. Irani, charged with holding church services and sharing the Gospel with Muslims, has four years remaining on his sentence.
In September, Irani's attorney appealed his prison sentence. Iranian authorities had granted freedom to 11 prisoners of conscience, and the pastor hoped a judge would reconsider his sentence. The judge reportedly stated the only way he would pardon and release Irani was "if he repented and returned to Islam," which he refused to do.
Mohabat News, an Iranian Christian news service, reported that another convert from Islam, Vahid Hakkani, is in critical condition due to improper medical care in prison. Hakkani had to be transferred to a hospital for surgery to correct internal bleeding, as he was losing as much 300 milliliters (10 ounces) of blood on his worst days, according to Mohabat News.
According to MEC, Hakkani is serving a three-year, eight-month prison sentence for attending a house church, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries, propaganda against the regime and disrupting national security. Hakkani and three others were arrested in February 2012 during a crackdown on house churches. All four were found guilty of the charges; their initial appeal was rejects on Oct. 12.
Another pastor, Farshid Fathi, has spent nearly three years in prison for his Christian activity. A judge sentenced Fathi, 34, to six years in Evin Prison.
Human rights activists are still trying to get more information in the case of another Christian, Hossein Saketi Aramsari, also known as Stephen, who was charged with evangelism in late November. According to Mohabat News, Aramsari was detained on July 23 in Golestan, 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Tehran.
Authorities moved Aramsari around many different jails and intelligence offices, including one of the wards at Rajaei-Shahr Prison, which is managed by the Revolutionary Guards. He is currently held at Karaj Central Detention House where he awaits trial, according to Mohabat News.
Amid this regression in religious rights in Iran, there was one bright spot. On Nov. 3, the same day Abedini was transferred to Rajaei-Shahr Prison, Mostafa Bordbar was released from Evin Prison after a judge overturned a conviction against him on Oct. 30. Bordbar had been convicted of participating in an anti-security organization and of crimes against national security. He had been arrested in December 2012 at a Christmas celebration.
The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution calling for Abedini's release and the House Foreign Affairs Committee has unanimously approved H. Res. 147 calling for the pastor's release. Key members of the European Parliament also have released a letter in behalf of Abedini.
The ACLJ has launched an online social media campaign on behalf of Abedini at BeHeardProject.com.