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The United States has imposed sanctions on the judge reportedly involved in the case of Navid Afkari, who was executed earlier this month. (file photo)

The United States has imposed sanctions on an Iranian judge reportedly involved in the case of Navid Afkari, an Iranian wrestler who was executed earlier this month after being convicted of murder.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced the sanctions against Judge Sayyed Mahmoud Sadati in a statement on September 24. The statement said Sadati and Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz were reported to be involved in Afkari's case.

Pompeo, who previously called the execution of Afkari "a vicious and cruel act," referred to it as "unconscionable" in the statement. He said Afkari had a promising wrestling career ahead of him and said his trial was rushed and unfair.

"Too often, the Iranian regime targets, arrests, and kills the brightest and most promising Iranians, thereby depriving Iran of its greatest asset – the skill and talent of its own people," Pompeo said.

Afkari, 27, was executed after being convicted of stabbing a security guard to death during anti-government protests in 2018, Iranian state media reported. The case sparked an international outcry, and U.S. President Donald Trump had called for Iran to spare his life.

Afkari reported being tortured by Iranian officials at Adelabad prison, which was also sanctioned by the United States on September 24. Prior to his execution, Afkari said his confession was provided under duress, according to Pompeo's statement.

The United States also sanctioned another judge, Mohammad Soltani of Iran's Revolutionary Court system, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and Orumiyeh and Vakilabad prisons, saying they were "responsible for certain gross violations of human rights."

Soltani is responsible for sentencing members of the Baha’i faith on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief, Pompeo said in the statement.

Vakilabad prison, which is where U.S. citizen Michael White was held, has also arbitrarily detained trade union activist and teacher Mohammad Hossein Sepehri for exercising his human rights, Pompeo said. White, a U.S. Navy veteran, was detained in 2018 and returned home in June as part of a deal in which the United States allowed Iranian-American physician Majid Taheri to leave for Iran.

Orumiyeh prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings, Pompeo said.

The sanctions block any assets they have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from any transactions with them.

Earlier on September 24, U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the sanctions were forthcoming. Abrams spoke at a hearing called to discuss the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward the Middle East.

Democratic members of the committee used the hearing to criticize Trump’s policy toward Iran, saying the president’s decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran has failed.

Trump in 2018 withdrew from the agreement amid concerns it created a clear path for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Trump has imposed punishing sanctions on Iran to get it to negotiate a new agreement.

The Trump policy “has been a disaster,” Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia) told the hearing, adding it has alienated European allies that were part of the agreement. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom joined the United States, Russia, China, and the European Union in signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.

Kaine also said the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement has potentially “made it much more difficult” to reach a similar deal with North Korea. The United States has shown North Korea that it doesn’t stick to agreements, he said.

In response to questions from Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), Abrams admitted that Iran had “moved a little bit closer” to making a nuclear bomb since the United States pulled out of the JCPOA.

However, Abrams said the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, which includes hundreds of sanctions on individuals and companies, has significantly damaged Iran’s economy and that it expected Tehran to return to talks.

“We think with that [economic] pressure, once the election is over, they will come to the table,” Abrams said.

Trump is seeking reelection on November 3.

With reporting by Reuters
Maryya Kalesnikava

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of lawmakers from Europe and North America have written to Alyaksandr Lukashenka to demand he release Belarus's political prisoners -- a move underscoring widespread outrage in the West over the violent repression of protests in the country.

The 270 legislators from 29 countries raised concerns about the detention of Maryya Kalesnikava and two of her colleagues on the opposition Coordination Council.

They also raised concerns about the detention since late July of Vitali Shkliarov, a political strategist with dual U.S. and Belarusian citizenship who is the husband of a U.S. diplomat.

“As transatlantic legislators strongly committed to preserving and strengthening liberty, democracy, and human rights in Europe, we write with deep concern regarding the [Lukashenka] regime’s unjust detention of opposition leader [Maryya] Kalesnikava and her colleagues,”the legislators wrote.

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Kalesnikava, Maksim Znak, and Illya Saley are ranking members of the Coordination Council -- the opposition organization set up after Belarus's disputed August 9 presidential election with the stated aim of facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.

Kalesnikava and her colleagues have been jailed along with thousands of demonstrators as Lukashenka has sought to squash the largest political protests in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lukashenka's security forces also are accused of torturing hundreds of citizens who oppose his grip on power.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusian citizens have taken to the streets to protest the official results announced after the election -- which gave Lukashenka another five-year term with about 80 percent of the vote.

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The demonstrators say the vote was rigged in Lukashenka's favor. They are demanding he step down from power and hold a new election.

Lukashenka has not shown any sign of giving in to the demonstrators' demands. He held a secretive inauguration on September 23 -- prompting the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to declare him an illegitimate ruler.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the EU are preparing to impose sanctions against Belarusian officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

“We strongly support carefully targeted sanctions against human rights offenders in and outside of Belarus, in coordination with transatlantic allies and international partners,” the lawmakers stated in their joint letter.

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