January 26th, 2013
10:00 PM ET
The family of an American Christian pastor being tried in Iran for his religious activities were told Saturday that he had been moved to a different ward in the prison where he is being held, a U.S. religious group said.
Saeed Abedini "reportedly was moved to (another) ward to receive better medical treatment, although it is impossible to confirm his health status or if he is receiving treatment," the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) said in a statement. They were turned away because visitation hours for the ward are on Monday, according to the statement.
Neither Abedini nor his attorney has not been present at his trial since January 21. His family became concerned when they attempted to visit him on Thursday and were told by prison guards that he wasn't there, said the group, a right-leaning nonprofit founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson.
Abedini, who was born in Iran and now lives in Idaho, has been jailed since September. He is being tried in a Revolutionary Guard Court to address charges of attempting to undermine the Iranian government, the ACLJ said. The group contends that charges stem from Abedini's conversion to Christianity from Islam 13 years ago and his activities with home churches in Iran.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department released a statement saying it is "deeply concerned about the fairness and the transparency of his trial."
"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal rights of freedom of religion and we call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini's human rights and to release him," the statement said.
At a news conference Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also called on Iran to release the pastor, and he referred questions about the family's concerns over Abedini's whereabouts to the State Department.
A lay church leader testified in court Tuesday about his connection to Abedini, said the center. He was "specifically questioned about converting to Christianity and whether Saeed encouraged the conversion to Christianity, which he did," the center said. "Additionally, the court asked for details about how Pastor Saeed has financed his multiple trips back to Iran to work on establishing an orphanage for children in need and whether any foreign funds were involved."
The judge told the lay leader to expect another summons within a month to return to court, said the pastor's wife, Naghmeh Abedini.
Naghmed Abedini said her husband had earlier told her that he will likely be held "in prison for a long time," she said earlier this week in a statement through the center.
"We need to continue exposing Iran's violations of Saeed's human rights until my husband is safely back in my arms," the statement quoted her as saying.
On Monday, the pastor gave the judge a written statement and was questioned by prosecutors and his defense lawyer, whom he only met that day.
The judge in the case has faced sanctions by the European Union "because of his harsh sentences for those on trial for exercising a fundamental human right," the center said.
Naghmeh Abedini said this week that "a few" laymen with the Christian church in Iran told her husband's attorney that they have been called to testify in the case.
Tiffany Barrans, the legal director for the ACLJ, said this week that the church leaders in Iran were faced with a dilemma: They could avoid being witnesses, or they could testify in court and possibly face similar charges.
"They are all very fearful to have to show up," she said on a conference call with Naghmeh Abedini and ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow. The nonprofit organization provides legal counsel and litigates cases involving freedom and liberty issues around the world.
Naghmeh Abedini said that when she last spoke with her husband on January 9, he was resigned to a fate of remaining in prison.
The Iranian state-run news agency INSA reported Monday that the pastor would soon be released on bail - which Naghmeh Abedini charged Tuesday was "clearly a lie."
Saeed Abedini has been arrested nearly 10 times in the past by the Iranian authorities, his wife said. The last time he had been held was in 2009, when he agreed to stop supporting home churches. He had taken nine trips to Iran, where he was born and where his parents live, since then.
His wife said he felt like he was OK to go back repeatedly because he had no dealings with the authorities since he promised to no longer work with Christian home services.
Once he even went with his wife and two children. He and Naghmeh are both converts to Christianity from Islam, and they received threats during the most recent family visit so she took the children home. He returned to their home in Boise, Idaho, later.
Last summer, the pastor was on a bus that was crossing from Turkey into Iran. Immigration officials took away his passport and he was later put on house arrest. In September he was jailed, in the notorious Evin prison, while he awaited trial.
CNN's Michael Martinez and Eric Ferrell contributed to this report.
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