The case of Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, has received widespread attention both inside and outside Iran, with human rights advocates and organizations around the world calling for the verdict to be overturned. It is no surprise that campaigners have called for leniency but the fact that certain Iranian legal experts argue the charges against Arabi are illegal under Iranian law has been less publicized. Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against the photographer in late November 2014.
Revolutionary Guards agents arrested Arabi, 30, and his wife at their home on January 5, 2014. They were arrested in connection with material Arabi had posted on Facebook. His wife was released within hours, but Arabi was placed in solitary confinement for 52 days and forced to confess under physical and psychological pressure. Soheil was sentenced to death by execution for insulting the prophet of Islam (Sabb-alnaby) and given a further three years’ imprisonment for insulting the Supreme Leader and propaganda against the state.
According to Article 263 of Iran’s Penal Code, “Anyone who insults the Prophet of Islam or any of the great prophets or any of the Great Imams of Islam, or Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, is considered to be guilty of Sabb-Alnaby and must be sentenced to the death penalty.” However, the article also stipulates that if the person in question insults any of the abovementioned while drunk, or through quoting others, or while in a poor psychological condition, he should not be subjected to the death penalty. Instead, the accused should be sentenced to 74 lashes.
Soheil himself has argued that the “insults” he posted on Facebook were shared posts — he had not written any of them himself, he had merely shared or copied and pasted others’ posts. Some of the insults were posted by people who had liked and commented on Facebook pages Arabi had managed, or by other administrators of those pages. Moreover, during his trial, Soheil argued that he had posted the (allegedly) insulting links when he was distressed and not in a normal state of mind. Hence, the death sentence handed down to Soheil Arabi does not only go against Iran’s international obligations, but also against domestic law. Equally, according to some religious reformers, the sentence is in contradiction of Islam. In addition, when his case was referred to the Supreme Court, a new charge — “spreading corruption on earth” — was added to his case file. According to Arabi’s lawyer, Vahid Moshkhani, this addition is unlawful. He argues that the Supreme Court can either uphold or overrule the lower court verdict but not add another charge.
Iran is a signatory to a range of international human rights mechanisms, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and is therefore obliged to abide by its articles. Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Even though the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and can be restricted if it endangers the rights and reputation of others or threatens public order, public health, public morals, or the national security of the country, the restrictions should meet certain requirements in order to be acceptable under international human rights law. One of the requirements is proportionality. In this regard, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has stressed that prison terms and floggings are clearly disproportionate to the abuse of freedom of expression.
Even from an Islamic point of view, the verdict has been challenged. Many Islamic reformers argue that although condemned, the Koran has not assigned any worldly punishment — punishment in this life on earth and not in the afterlife — for sabb. In the early years of Islam, the punishment for sabb was applied only to enemy combatants and was only later extended to encompass Muslim offenders. Prominent reformer and religious expert Mohsen Kadivar argues that while the Koran condemns those who do not see the truth and insult the Prophet, nowhere has it assigned a punishment in this life for these condemned acts. Kadivar cites various Koranic verses, demonstrating how the Koran instructs the Prophet to be patient, faithful and forgiving by not responding to insult, mockery and harassment.
Verse Q 6:108
“Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did.”
Verse Q 3:159
By mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].
Verse Q 22:107
“And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.”
In addition, a verse in surah Al-Ĥujurāt states: “O you, who have believed, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet or be loud to him in speech like the loudness of some of you to others, lest your deeds become worthless while you perceive not.” Here, the punishment assigned for raising one’s voice above the Prophet is merely the worthlessness of one’s deeds. Another verse, in Surah Ahzab, states that, “Punishment is the domain of Allah and not that of humans: indeed, those who trouble Allah and His Noble Messenger, upon them is Allah’s curse in the world and in the Hereafter, and Allah has kept prepared a disgraceful punishment for them. To disrespect or trouble the Holy Prophet — peace and blessings be upon him — is blasphemy.”
Another part of the Koran, Surah Al-Emrān, teaches patience in the face of abuse: “You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah — indeed, that is of the matters [worthy] of determination.”
Surah Al-Anām also prescribes patience, while removing sabb from worldly punishments: “And do not abuse those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest exceeding the limits they should abuse Allah out of ignorance. Thus have We made fair seeming to every people their deeds; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did.”
The general message from the Koran, then, is that insults should be met with patience — and that no punishment in this life has been assigned for such insults. So the Koran does not prescribe a specific, overarching punishment for insulting the prophet – let alone the death penalty.
Religious scholar Hassan Yousefi Eshkevary also argues that, according to the Koran, there is a not a worldly punishment for the crime of sabb and points out that neither the prophet or any of the holy Imams have ever punished anyone for insulting them. Eshkevary cites a famous narrative in which the Prophet Mohammad was routinely insulted and harassed by a young boy. One day the boy got sick. When the prophet heard about his sickness, he paid him a visit. The boy was touched by the prophet’s visit and became remorseful of his actions, and, in some narratives he turned to Islam. Eshkevary, who himself was convicted of insulting the religious sanctities for arguing that wearing hejab is not obligatory in Islam, argues that the Iranian government manipulates the notion of sabb to suppress anyone who thinks differently than the government.
This, it seems, is what has happened to Soheil Arabi, handed down a death sentence for Facebook posts. What the regime has failed to see is that this punishment is not only against Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, but is also against Islam and Iran’s own laws. It is the latest tragic example of how the government manipulates religion — the beliefs and values on which the Islamic Republic is said to have been founded — to suppress freedom of expression and silence dissent.