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Islamic Court Acquits Iranian Christian

ISTANBUL (Compass) -- An Islamic court in southern Iran acquitted Christian lay pastor Hamid Pourmand on charges of apostasy and proselytizing two days ago, declaring, "Under sharia (Islamic law), there are no charges against you."

During a May 28 court hearing in Bandar-i Bushehr, Pourmand's judge reportedly told him, "I don't know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does. You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case."

But instead of dropping the charges, the judge declared he was acquitting Pourmand, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity 25 years ago, because he had "done nothing wrong" according to Islamic law.

Pourmand's surprise acquittal in a single hearing was reported yesterday by the Farsi-language ISNA news agency, quoting the jailed Christian's lawyer as its source. "Since then, the news of Hamid's acquittal has appeared on many well-known Farsi websites," an Iranian Christian confirmed to Compass today.

Even so, the acquitted pastor remains imprisoned, serving out a three-year jail sentence for a separate military court conviction also linked to his religious conversion.

Pourmand, 47, was arrested last September by the Iranian security police while attending a church conference near Tehran. An army colonel, he was also serving as lay pastor for an Assemblies of God congregation in the southern port city of Bandar-i Bushehr.

After five months of interrogation in strict solitary confinement, Pourmand was arraigned in February before a military court, accused of "deceiving the Iranian armed forces" by not reporting his conversion to Christianity. Despite clear-cut evidence to the contrary, he was ruled guilty, dishonorably discharged and handed down the maximum three-year prison sentence for his "crime."

After spending the next two months in a group cell at Tehran's Evin Prison, Pourmand was transferred on May 16 to a prison in Bandar-i Bushehr to stand trial before an Islamic court on separate apostasy and proselytizing charges.

For the past nine months, the lay pastor has been subjected to repeated pressures to recant his Christian faith and return to Islam in order to escape execution for apostasy, as required under the theocratic laws of Iran.

Pourmand's lawyer has appealed the military court conviction on the basis of written documents signed by the former army colonel's superiors, proving that they knew he had become a Christian. The military tribunal which convicted Pourmand in February had rejected the documents as falsified.

Sources close to the case admit there is little assurance that Pourmand's military conviction would be overturned by Iran's Supreme Court. But they expressed hope that his sentence might be reduced to one year or less. "He has been under arrest for more than nine months already," one Iranian Christian observed, "so if his sentence is reduced, he could be released very soon."

Commenting on his two weeks of confinement in Bandar-i Bushehr, Pourmand reportedly confirmed he had been jailed there with common criminals, including gangsters, murderers and drug dealers. "But now I'm back with the so-called 'spies' at Evin," he joked after arriving back in Tehran yesterday.

Since February, the lay pastor had shared a group cell with journalist Akbar Ganji and other prominent political dissidents jailed at Evin Prison for expressing their pro-reform views. The U.S. administration and European governments have urged Tehran repeatedly to set free the journalist and other known prisoners of conscience, including Pourmand.

Over the weekend, unprecedented protests continued in front of the Iranian Parliament building, where students and civic leaders staged sit-ins and raised placards and banners demanding the release of Ganji, now seriously ill after five years in prison. Ten days into a hunger strike, Ganji today yielded to the advice of his lawyer, Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Edabi, accepting emergency medical leave from prison to receive hospital treatment.

"We don't know what will happen about Pourmand in the next few weeks," one Iranian source told Compass today. "But we have absolute proof of his innocence, and there are very strong international pressures right now, as we are close to electing a new president."

Surrounded by police yesterday as he was escorted into Evin Prison, Pourmand smiled and waved to his family, saying, "Don't worry about me. This prison is like my home now, you know!"

Pourmand and his wife Arlet, who is an Assyrian Christian, have two teenage sons, Immanuel and David.

by Barbara G. Baker

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