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Mohammad Ali Taheri

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.

With reporting RFE/RL's Radio Farda, ISNA, BBC, and AP
Beka Tsikarishvili after his court hearing on August 31

TBILISI -- A court in Georgia has fined a prominent advocate for drug-law reform 2,000 laris ($830) for possession of 69 grams of cannabis, replacing a 14-year prison sentence that was imposed before punishments were softened.

The Tbilisi City Court also ruled on August 31 that Beka Tsikarishvili cannot drive a car, teach, or practice law for five years, and barred him from working in medicine or pharmaceuticals for 10 years.

Tsikarishvili was arrested in May 2013, and his case led to protests across Georgia against strict punishment for drug possession and use.

His 14-year sentence engendered a campaign calling for his release and softer drug laws, and authorities freed him on bail 18 days after his sentence was pronounced.

The "Beka Is Not a Criminal" campaign later transformed into the White Noise Movement, which continues to campaign for drug-law reform.

Amid frequent protests in 2015, Georgia’s Constitutional Court declared imprisonment for possession of 69 grams of cannabis or less unconstitutional.

A year later, the Constitutional Court ruled imprisonment for possession and consumption of any amount of cannabis unconstitutional.

In July, the Georgian parliament amended the law to comply with the ruling, imposing a fine for cannabis possession instead of jail time, but maintaining it as a criminal offense.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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