Iran rejects U.S. charges of religious persecution WIRE:02/14/2000 15:16:00 ET

Iran rejects U.S. charges of religious persecution

TEHRAN, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Iran denied on Monday that death sentences against three members of the Bahai faith were final and rejected U.S. charges that they were being persecuted because of their religion.

"From the religious and legal point of view we believe that no one can be punished merely for their belief, let alone be given such a heavy sentence as death," Iranian state television quoted judiciary spokesman Mir-Mohammad Sadeqi as saying.

"This case dates back to eight months ago and no new ruling has been issued in recent months and the ruling in this case is not final," Sadeqi said.

"This case has gone through a long process. Death sentences were issued but the supreme court rejected them and ordered a new hearing," he added.

Sadeqi was reacting to a statement by the White House on Friday that said President Bill Clinton was "deeply troubled" by death sentences on Sirus Zabihi-Moghaddam, Hedayat Kashefi-Najafabadi and Mauchehr Khulusi.

"In all three cases it is clear that the individuals were arrested, charged and sentenced to death solely because of their beliefs," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

The first two men were arrested in 1997 for violating a ban on religious gatherings while the third has never had formal charges brought against him, according to the U.S. National Spiritual Association of Bahais spokeswoman Kit Cosby.

She said Iran executed more than 200 Bahais between its Islamic Revolution in 1979 and 1986, adding that the number of such executions had since fallen and that the last one took place in July 1998.

In October, the State Department accused Iran of seeking to "eradicate" the Bahai faith and accused the country and four others of violating religious freedom.

The Bahai faith, which originated in Iran 150 years ago, is an offshoot of Islam but is considered heresy by Iran's religious leaders.

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