On Saturday, Saeed Abedini and four other Americans were released from an Iranian prison. Here is what you should know about Abedini, his imprisonment, and his release.
Who is Saeed Abedini?
Abedini is an Iranian-born former Muslim who converted to Christianity in 2000. He reportedly converted after becoming severely depressed from undergoing suicide bomber training by a radical Muslim group. After his conversion he became involved in the house-church movement and is credited with establishing about 100 house churches in 30 Iranian cities. He later moved to the United States, became an ordained minister, and in 2010 was granted American citizenship, becoming a dual Iranian-American citizen. Iran, however, never acknowledged his U.S. citizenship.
Why was Abedini jailed in Iran?
Since 2009, Abedini made a half dozen trips back to Iran. He had travelled back to the country in 2012 to finalize work on an orphanage when Iranian revolutionary guards detained him and said he must face criminal charges because of his Christian faith. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for “compromising national security.”
“Under Shariah, or Islamic law, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is on a par with someone waging war against Islam,” Lisa Daftai notes. “Death sentences for such individuals are prescribed by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s Constitution, which allows judges to rely on fatwas for determining charges and sentencing on crimes not addressed in the Iranian penal code.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council declared in 2013 that Abedini’s imprisonment was “arbitrary” and violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Why was he released now?
The Obama administration had reportedly been meeting in secret with Iranian counterparts for 14 months to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Five Americans, including Abedini, were released in exchange for seven Iranians being held in the United States for violating sanctions. The sanctions were being lifted anyway as part of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran.
Last September Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled a procedural vote that would block President Obama from lifting sanctions against Iran under the nuclear deal until Iran publicly released Abedini and three other Americans being held in Iranian prisons. That effort failed after 42 Democrats in the Senate voted to block the amendment.
Although the Obama administration says the timing wasn’t intentional, the release occurred on Religious Freedom Day.
What was the controversy with Abedini’s wife?
Since 2012 Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, had been working publicly to secure his release. But in November 2015, Naghmeh suspended her public advocacy citing “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed's addiction to pornography)” in her marriage.
More recently she said the timing of her emails, which were leaked to media, was unfortunate, and that, “When he gets home, we can address the serious issues that have happened and continued.”
What happens next for Abedini?
Abedini and the other prisoners were taken to Landstuhl, Germany, where the U.S. Army has a large medical base. Naghmeh told the Washington Post her husband will undergo a medical examination and they can assess his physical and emotional state. While he was imprisoned, she says, he was beaten and suffered internal bleeding. She added that it was unclear whether her husband will continue to be a pastor, though it’s always been “his heart.”