The conviction of a city council chairman in Iran to flogging for supporting the legal election of a non-Muslim Zoroastrian as a council member in 2017 has led to criticism.
The chairman of the Supreme Council of Provinces in Iran, Morteza Alviri, has deplored the decision saying that the head of the Yazd city government is being punished simply for "mediating" in the case of a Zoroastrian city councilor, Sepanta Niknam.
At the time of his election conservatives objected that a non-Muslim Zoroastrian cannot be part of any body governing a Muslim majority entity.
Before 2017 Sepanta Niknam had served a full term as an elected city councilman in Yazd. Four years later in 2017, he was reelected but following a lawsuit filed by one of his challengers, the Administrative Justice Court (AJC) ruled that Niknam, being a Zoroastrian, was not eligible to serve as a city council member.
The AJC's verdict triggered a barrage of criticism since Niknam belonged to an "officially recognized" religious minority. Established Christian churches, the Jewish community and Zoroastrians are officially recognized minorities in Iran, unlike other religions, which can be barred from activities in the country.
The chairman of Yazd city council, Gholamali Sefid, threatened at the time that he would not attend the council's sessions until Niknam could return to his seat.
Ultimately, the influential Expediency Discernment Council overruled AJC's verdict and let the young Zoroastrian take back his elected position.
Niknam is currently the only non-Muslim member in any city council in Iran. Although there are not many Zoroastrains left in Iran, Yazd has a small community of 5,000 still adhering to the ancient Persian religion.
Upon reinstatement of Niknam, his challenger, Ali Asghar Baqeri, filed a lawsuit against the chairman of Yazd city council, Gholamali Sefid, accusing him of libelous remarks and spreading lies.
Sepanta's defeated challenger, Baqeri is a comrade in arms of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. It is not clear if the IRGC general has applied any pressure on the court to convict Sefid, but many in Iran would more likely link Baqeri’s friendship with Jafari as a factor.
Upon Baqeri's complaint, a court sentenced Sefid to 37 lashes and $25 fine.
Since Sefid is an elder, the verdict for flogging him has been suspended for a year.
Speaking to a local news outlet, Sefid sarcastically said, "Since I am not going to shut my mouth and I am getting older within a year, I prefer being flogged right now."
Referring to the case, former mayor of Tehran, and current chairman of the Supreme Council of the Provinces, Morteza Alviri, believes that Sefid was merely sentenced for his role in Niknam’s case.
Earlier in a speech, Sefid had referred to Baqeri as an "extremist", which the defeated challenger found offensive.
However, Alviri believes that what Sefid had said was simply a statement of fact, and issuing such sentences against city councilors, limits their freedom to serve their constituencies.
Referring to Niknam’s case, ex-president Mohammad Khatami said, "Iran is pushed back a century, in the fields of democracy, justice, and freedom of expression."