Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran: Reports Of Death Sentence Spark Concern Over Ayatollah's Fate

Ayatollah Borujerdi as he appears in an undated publicity flyer (Courtesy Photo) July 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian and international rights groups have expressed concern over reports suggesting that a possible death sentence was handed down against a controversial Iranian cleric and some of his followers despite subsequent denials among semiofficial media.

Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Borujerdi has been a vocal advocate of the separation of religion from politics. However, he's known only to a limited number of followers and people who follow developments in Iran and is not considered to be an influential ayatollah.

Unconfirmed reports on Iranian websites suggested that Iran's Special Court for the Clergy (SCC) in mid-June ordered the executions.

Borujerdi has been in jail for the past nine months, but his strident argument to secularize political leadership in Iran has long upset the country's ruling clerics.

Iranian and international concerns grew after the reports hinted that Borujerdi and sympathizers had been found guilty of serious charges -- including "waging war against God" -- and sentenced to die.

Semiofficial news agencies soon ran stories quoting at least one unnamed official from the special clerics' court rejecting the reports, saying no sentence has been issued and officials are still reviewing the case.

Borujerdi was arrested at his Tehran home on October 8 along with more than 100 of his sympathizers after violent clashes with police forces. Most of his followers were later released, many on bail.

But Borujerdi remains in jail, with little information available about his condition.

'Very Worrying'

Borujerdi, like many other political and prisoners of conscience detained at Tehran's Evin prison, has reportedly been denied contact with his family and prevented access to legal counsel. Reports say the ayatollah was not allowed to see his mother, who fell ill and died during his detention.

Abdolkarim Lahidji is vice president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, which allies more than 100 groups in scores of countries. He says he heard reports that Borujerdi -- who appeared before the clerical court in June -- appeared frail, and could neither speak clearly nor stand upright.

"We have been informed by his family that the health condition of Kazemeyni Borujerdi is very worrying," Lahidji says. "He suffers from Parkinson's disease, what has added to his family's concerns that he's been denied treatment -- meaning that they take him to court in this situation, they treat him badly, they take him to court with handcuffs and shackles."

Amnesty International said on June 15 that there are increasing concerns that Borujerdi's treatment in custody is endangering his life. The group added that there are allegations that the ayatollah -- who is also said to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems -- was tortured during interrogations.

Thorn In Officials' Sides

Several days before his arrest, Borujerdi told RFE/RL that he had been under increased government pressure. He also said that authorities had threatened him with execution.

In October, Borujerdi said that authorities had targeted him for what he regards as his traditional interpretation of Islam.

"I demonstrate that real Islam is free of political ornaments," Borujerdi said. "It is included in verses whose interpretation is different from that provided by [the authorities]. Its interpretation is from 1,428 years ago. It is about the rule of the Prophet (Muhammad) and how he lived; he was against repression and opposed discrimination. Our divine leaders took food from their mouths and the mouths of their children to give it to the poor. Today, unfortunately, despite the immense wealth of this country, people live in poverty."

Borujerdi's view on the secularization -- transferring power from clerical to civil control -- could be interpreted as challenging the foundations of the Islamic republic established after Iran's 1979 revolution.

Iranian authorities have accused Borujerdi of misinterpreting Islam. Some have also accused him of claiming to be a representative of the Twelfth Imam -- know as "the Hidden Imam" -- who Shi'a believe disappeared in the 10th century. Borujerdi has rejected such accusations and claimed he follows "the true Islam."

Difficult To Know

Some reports by Iranian news sources suggest the ayatollah and some 20 of his followers were charged with "acting against national security," "waging war against God," and publicly calling Iran's form of "absolute rule of supreme jurisprudence" ("velayate vagih") unlawful.

The International Federation of Human Rights' Lahidji says a lack of transparency by Iran's judiciary and the clerics' court makes it impossible to confirm reports of the charges or possible sentencing.

He thinks Borujerdi and his followers are being tried and persecuted for their convictions.

"Kazemeyni Borujerdi is in favor of non-political Islam, and he's been in prison for more than nine months," Lahidji says. "He and his followers were arrested only because of their ideas -- they're in prison under very difficult conditions, [and] their families are worried and say they have been mistreated to force them to make televised confessions."

Lahidji urged authorities immediately to reverse any sentences against Borujerdi or his followers, whom he describes as "prisoners of conscience."

Radio Farda's Persian-Language Website

Radio Farda's Persian-Language Website

UPDATED CONSTANTLY: Visit RFE/RL's Persian-language website, featuring news, analysis, features, streaming audio, and more, in Persian, from Radio Farda.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Iran.

  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.