Iran’s Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Kurdish Sunni cleric

A 45-year-old Kurdish cleric from Bukan, who was arrested during the 'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' uprising in the city, was sentenced to death and a 16-year prison term.

Branch 41 of Iran’s Supreme Court, presided over by Judge Razini, upheld the death sentence and 16-year prison term for Kurdish Sunni cleric Mohammad Khezrnezhad in early April, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) has reported.

On 30 December 2023, after 14 months of detention, Branch Three of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, presided over by Judge Reza Najafzadeh, sentenced Khezrnezhad to death and 16 years in prison on charges of “spreading corruption on earth” (efsad-e fel arz), “harming the territorial integrity or independence of the country”, and “propaganda against the state”.

The 45-year-old cleric from Bukan, West Azerbaijan Province, who was arrested during the 'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' (Woman, Life, Freedom) uprising in the city, is currently being held in Ward 2 of Orumiyeh Central Prison, where prisoners awaiting trial are held.

A source familiar with the case had previously told the KHRN: “Khezrnezhad’s trial, which was held in four short sessions, the last in November 2023, was conducted via video conference without the right to legal representation. The judge handed down the death sentence and 16 years’ imprisonment solely on the basis of the Ministry of Intelligence’s report, without hearing the defendant’s explanations or defences”.

According to the source, Khezrnezhad was subjected to severe physical and psychological torture for forced “confessions” during his 108 days of solitary confinement in the Ministry of Intelligence detention centre in Orumiyeh.

The Ministry of Intelligence presented a recorded video of these “confessions” as evidence in the case and even after his transfer to Orumiyeh prison, visible effects of the torture remained on his body, the source said.

According to documents obtained by KHRN, Khezrnezhad, who was not given sufficient time to defend himself in all four court sessions, denied all charges and stated that all confessions, including the recorded video, were obtained under duress and as a result of severe torture by the Ministry of Intelligence.

He also challenged the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court to try him as a cleric and requested to be tried before the Special Clerical Court.

The death sentence for the Sunni Kurdish cleric, accused of collaborating with radical religious groups, contradicts his consistent criticism of religious extremism in his speeches and his emphasis on religious tolerance.

Khezrnezhad was arrested at his family home in Bukan on 19 November 2022. Security forces forcibly entered the house, subjected him and other family members to violence, and detained his son, Yasser Khezrnezhad, for several days.

His arrest followed a critical speech he gave at a memorial ceremony for Asaad Rahimi, one of the protesters killed during the anti-government uprising of Women Life Freedom in Bukan.

After the protests began, the Sunni Kurdish cleric published comments and articles on his Telegram channel expressing support for the protests and commemorating the protesters killed.

In October 2022, 266 Sunni clerics in Kurdistan issued a statement condemning the government’s violent crackdown on protesters and expressing solidarity with the people’s legitimate demands. Khezrnezhad was one of the signatories.

Referring to the government’s use of force, including the killing of Jina Amini, the clerics said: “We, as a group of Sunni scholars from the Kurdish regions, while announcing our strong support for the people’s just and legitimate demands, strongly condemn the violence and the arrest and killing of the demonstrators and express our heartfelt condolences to all the zealous and oppressed people of Iran.”

Over the past 20 years, Khezrnezhad has been forced to leave his position as prayer leader in various mosques in Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province, and Bukan several times due to pressure from the security authorities.

In mid-February, a group of Kurdish Sunni clerics and religious scholars sent a joint letter to the head of the judiciary saying that the death sentence against Khezrnezhad was unjust. They rejected all the charges against the cleric and called for his release.