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Iran court likely to revoke pastor's death sentence: lawyer

Oct 3, 2011, 9:56 a.m.

By Parisa Hafezi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's Supreme court is likely to revoke the death sentence passed on a Christian pastor for apostasy, his lawyer said on Monday.

Yousof Nadarkhani, 33, was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran's northern city of Rasht in 2009. An appeals court upheld his sentence last year after he refused to reconvert to Islam, his lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told Reuters.

"I am optimistic that the Supreme Court in (the holy Shi'ite city of) Qom will drop the case altogether. I am 95 percent sure about it ... the court is on (next) Monday and I think that the court decision will come out next Monday," Dadkhah said.

A branch of Iran's Supreme Court that handles religious matters is located in the central city of Qom.

The United States and Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury have called on Iran to save the life of Nadarkhani. Iranian leaders reject claims by Western human rights groups that the Islamic Republic pressures religious minorities.

Nadarkhani, a member of the Protestant evangelical Church of Iran and a father of two, had been given three chances to recant by the appeals court, Dadkhah said.

The lawyer said Nadarkhani's sentence was based on fatwas issued by a senior cleric, now dead, but at least three others had challenged the ruling.

"My client refuses to recant ... our argument is that the preliminary sentence was incorrect since apostasy does not exist as an offence in Iran's Islamic Penal Code," Dadkhah said.

"The court cannot rely on the religious opinion of a Islamic jurisprudent against three others."

"ZIONIST AND TRAITOR"

Gholam-Ali Rezvani, deputy governor general of the northern province of Gilan, said on Friday Nadarkhani had been sentenced to death not for apostasy, but for other crimes.

"The issue of capital punishment of Nadarkhani is not a matter of faith or religion ... one cannot be executed for changing his religion in our system," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Rezvani as saying.

"He was a Zionist, a traitor and had committed security crimes," said Rezvani. Iran's judiciary officials were not available to comment.

Dadkhah said he had seen his client several times in prison in Rasht last week.

"Physically he looks weak but emotionally his belief in Christ is keeping his spirits high," the lawyer said.

Dadkhah told Human Rights Watch that his client "converted to Christianity at the age of 19, and that prior to that he did not consider himself a Muslim or an adherent of any religion."

Iran had signed international conventions banning religious persecution, he said.

"Considering all these reasons, I am very hopeful that my client will escape the death penalty and will be released," Dadkhah said.

Another lawyer disagreed.

"Most likely, Nadarkhani's death sentence will be dropped by the court but he will remain in jail as apostasy is considered a crime in Islam," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named.

Iran is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, which it insists is aimed at generating power and not building bombs as the United States, its European allies and Israel suspect. Iran refuses to recognize Israel and calls it "the Zionist regime."

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Andrew Roche)

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