THE BLOG
10/09/2014 02:46 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Killing Him Softly With Torture: When a Clergyman Stands for Freedom of Expression

In the U.S., we pride ourselves on freedom of speech. Regrettably, this is not the case in many countries. For example, the Iranian regime concentrates on oppression of thought.

For the past eight years the Islamic Republic has been trying to punish a religious leader, Ayatollah Kazemani Boroujerdi, for the crime of expressing "anti-government views." Boroujerdi is a senior member of the Shia clergy and an advocate for separation of religion and state, and in light of the publication of his new book, the authorities are reportedly working at expediting a death sentence for him. He is slated to die by hanging.

It is hard to enumerate the array of basic human rights violations that have been directed against him without numbing the audience or simply making them tune out. The determination to eliminate Boroujerdi has become apparent; the question is whether it will be a slow death through excessive torture or an eventual pull of the rope. Regardless of Boroujerdi's fate, human rights activists and the general public should know what he stands for in an effort to comprehend some communities' struggles for religious freedom.

The 56-year-old cleric, sometimes described as "Iran's Mandela," suffers from severe health conditions, exacerbated by torture, malnutrition and medical neglect in prison. It's been reported that, as part of Boroujerdi's punishment, his wife was raped in front of other family members. He has endured group beatings and been exposed to toxic chemicals during his solitary confinement. Some believe that attacks by violent prisoners actually were thinly disguised assassination attempts. For the past few days he has been incommunicado and taken to an undisclosed location for what is feared to be a "quiet execution."

Ironically, Boroujerdi is a devout Shia Muslim; his prestigious title "Ayatollah," or "sign of God," positions him at the same level as the nation's president, Ayatollah Hassan Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nonetheless, his scholarship and study of Islam led him to speak about the value of the separation of religion and government and assert that by maintaining a line between the two, both parties can be safeguarded and optimized. And this is not a novel idea: Many other Shia scholars share this view, including the revered cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq. Nonetheless, Boroujerdi's new book, which expresses his religious views, has triggered intense fury against him.

The Islamic Republic has long considered such ideas "heretical" and punishable by death. Last week, Iran's Special Prosecutor for the Clergy, Ayatollah Mohammad Moavedi, reportedly visited Boroujerdi in his prison cell and threatened to eliminate him and anyone who has been involved in production of this book. Specifically, he called the book apostasy and "counter to religious leadership." When Boroujerdi, in his defense, proposed the idea of a debate, he was told "we're not interested in debates; we prosecute and execute."

If it's any consolation, many prisoners languishing in isolation in prisons throughout Iran are not lucky enough to receive a visitor, even one bearing a threat, before they are sent to the gallows.

Capital punishment for alternative thought is a hallmark of the Iranian regime. Just last week, while President Rouhani visited New York and charmed world leaders at the United Nations with his rhetoric, a psychology scholar, Mohsen Amir Aslani, was executed in Tehran on charges of heresy. His crime? The application of a so-called "psychological interpretation of the Koran," specifically to the story of Jonah.

What is so threatening about religious freedom and freedom of expression for the Islamic Republic? Shouldn't a republic that prides itself on holding democratic elections feel empowered by the diversity of its opinions and the cultivation of its democratic ideals?

At a time when people are talking about opening the lines of communication between Iran and the United States, it is time for Iran to also open up its society to constructive conversations about religion, government and a true democracy that can safeguard the rights of all its citizens.

As enshrined in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, freedom of religion and religious expression are core to our civil liberties and democratic values and have inspired the world. The pending execution of Ayatollah Boroujerdi is a sad reminder that not all countries share these liberties or cherish these values.