Iran, the second largest nation in the Middle East, has a population of more than 80 million, of which (on paper at least) 99% are identified as Muslim. The Muslim majority includes a Shia majority (90%) and 9% Sunni Muslims (Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis and Kurds). The remaining 1% of non-Muslim population are identified as Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. A considerable part of the Muslim population practice Sufism.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran contains provisions which should protect freedom of thought, religion or belief (Article 23 in particular forbids “the investigation of individuals’ beliefs”, stating that “no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” However, this guarantee is frequently ignored in practice. Similarly Article 20 guarantees equality before the law, but qualifies that this equality is subject to “conformity with Islamic criteria”, which in practice means that many groups face discrimination in law and the application of law.
In reality, freedom of religion or belief, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the Islamic Republic of Iran are all severely restricted. Iranian law bars any criticism of Islam or deviation from the ruling Islamic standards. The authorities sometimes use these laws to persecute religious minorities and government critics.
The government jails and executes periodically dozens of individuals on charges of “enmity against God” (moharebeh). Although this crime is framed as a religious offense, and may be used against atheists and other religious dissenters, it is most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).
Chapter two of Book five of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses crimes of ‘Insulting sacred religious values’ and ‘criminal attempt on national authorities’.
blasphemy is given a dedicated chapter Second Book, Part 2, Chapter 5 of the new Penal Code), and is punishable by death.
Article 513 states (in translation by Iran Human Rights Documentation Center):
“Any person insults the sacred values of Islam or any of Great Prophets or the [twelve Shi’ite] imams or the Holy Fatemeh [daughter of Prophet Mohammad], if considered as sāb-al-nabi shall be punishable by the death penalty; otherwise shall be sentenced to one to five years imprisonment.”
Article 514 states, “[a]nyone who, by any means, insults Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and/or the Supreme Leader shall be sentenced to six months to two years’ imprisonment.”
In addition, Book two, Chapter five, lists the crime of “swearing at the Prophet” (sabb-e nabi). Article 262 reads:
“Article 262- Anyone who swears at or commits qazf against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as Sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.
“Note- Commission of qazf against, or swearing at, the [twelve] Shi’ite Imams (peace be upon them) or the Holy Fatima (peace be upon her) shall be regarded as Sab-e nabi.”
A note attached to Article 263 goes on to clarify that “When a sabb-e nabi (swearing at the Prophet) is committed in the state of drunkenness, or anger or quoting someone else, if it is considered to be an insult, the offender shall be sentenced to a ta’zir punishment of up to seventy-four lashes.”
However, expressing views that are “blasphemous”, or critical of religious and other authorities, are not only prosecuted under saab-al-nabi provisions. The Berkley Center explains how broadly-worded provisions about “spreading corruption on earth” are utilised to suppress free expression on a range of topics:
“As a Shi’a Islamic theocracy, Iran equally holds expressions of unsanctioned religious views and expressions of political dissent to be acts of blasphemy. Those arrested for blasphemy are generally charged with mofsed-e-filarz (“spreading corruption on earth”), a broadly defined crime capable of encompassing anything deemed undesirable by the state. There is no set penalty for such a wide-ranging crime, and punishments can run the gamut from a few months in jail to execution, with any prison sentence often supplemented by torture. In addition to suppressing political dissent and calls for reform within the established tradition of Shi’a Islam, blasphemy charges are also used to persecute religious minorities, including Bahá’ís, Sunnis, Sufis, and Christians. Recent blasphemy sentences include five years imprisonment for a singer who ridiculed the Qur’an in a song, three years for a Shi’a history professor and Iran-Iraq War veteran who called for political reforms, and a death sentence—later commuted to 11 years imprisonment—for a senior Shi’a cleric who advocates greater separation of religion and the state.”
During the first half of 2021, the president signed into law Articles 499 and 500 regarding “insulting legally-recognised religions and Iranian ethnicities” to the Islamic Penal Code. The translations provided are as shared by Article 19.
Article 499: “Anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognised under the Constitutions with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society or with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow”
Article 499 carries a sentence of between six months to two years in prison and/or a fine. However, if the violation “leads to violence or tensions” harsher sentences of two to five years’ imprisonment apply, and/or a monetary fine.
Article 500: “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” whether as part of a “sect” or through the use of “mind control methods and psychological indoctrination” The prescribed activities include “making false claims or lying in religious and Islamic spheres, such as claiming divinity.”
Article 500 carries a punishment of two to five years in prison, and/or a fine.
Iranian blogger and professional photographer, Soheil Arabi, has been repeatedly prosecuted by authorities in Iran for his writing and online activism. In 2014, he was sentenced to death for supposedly “insulting the Prophet” in Facebook posts. His death sentence was commuted in 2015, but he remains imprisoned. He has been repeatedly beaten while in prison and members of his family have been threatened and harassed. He is being held in the Great Tehran Penitentiary (GTP), the largest detention facility in the country, where inhumane living conditions have been reported from various sources.