WASHINGTON -- The United States says it is “deeply concerned” by reports that imprisoned Iranian spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri has been sentenced to death, and it called on the authorities to reverse the decision.
The State Department on September 1 said the charges of founding a religious cult and “spreading corruption on Earth” violate Tehran’s obligations to “respect and ensure his freedoms of expression and religion or belief.”
The statement added that the death penalty should be used “only for the most serious crimes.”
“We call on the Iranian government to take whatever steps necessary to reverse Taheri’s conviction and death sentence,” it added. “We join our voice with those who call on Iran to uphold its obligations under Iranian and international law and to ensure that the human rights of all individuals in Iran are respected and guaranteed.”
The State Department added it was “deeply disturbed” by reports that some of Taheri’s followers had also been arrested on “similar objectionable charges.”
An Iranian court in August sentenced Taheri to death for a second time, two years after an initial death sentence was overturned on appeal.
Taheri’s lawyer, Mahmud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, said on August 27 that Taheri had been sentenced after being convicted of “spreading corruption on Earth” for founding a group called the Circle of Mysticism.
Tabatabaei said he would appeal the ruling within the required 20 days and expressed hope that the Supreme Court would overturn the sentence.
Taheri's family has claimed the spiritual leader has suffered harassment in prison and was pressured into giving a forced video confession.
Taheri, 61, is a popular faith healer whose group promotes a mystical understanding of the universe.
He was for a time allowed to practice and teach in public, but he came under increased pressure following a warning by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about "false mysticism that might lure away people from Islam."
Taheri was first arrested in 2010 and has been in Evin prison in Tehran since 2011, when a court sentenced him to five years in prison for blasphemy.
He was sentenced to death on similar charges in 2015, but an appeals court later rejected the verdict.
Taheri has reportedly gone on hunger strike several times to protest his detention.
Many of his followers, especially around the city of Isfahan, have been detained by the authorities.