Iran: Baha’i seven face court and death

The National
The seven defendants, five men and two women, stand accused of “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic”.
As seven leaders of the Baha’i faith prepare to go on trial in Iran on charges ranging from spying for Israel to insulting Islam, the case is bringing the plight of the Baha’i community into the spotlight, underscoring what critics say is years of persecution by the Iranian regime that has begun reaching into the upper ranks of its leadership. Human rights advocates say the charges are baseless and offer all the trappings of a show trial.
They have languished in Evin prison, just north of Tehran, for nearly a year without access to their lawyer, the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. If found guilty they face a maximum penalty of death.

“They have not had any contact with Ms Ebadi at all, she has not even had access to their files,” said Nazila Ghanea, a lecturer in international human rights law at Oxford University and author of Human Rights, the UN & the Baha’is in Iran. The situation, she said, was “illegal under Iranian law”.

Diane Ala’i, the Geneva-based representative to the United Nations for the Baha’i International Community, said the seven Bahai’s were targeted because they are leaders of the community in Iran, but said at least 35 other Baha’is also languish in prison, while 80 others had been released on bail awaiting trial.

“These people are being held only because they are Baha’is,” she said.

Several rights groups and organisations have condemned the trial, as have the United Nations, the European Union and the governments of the United States and Britain.

But Iran insists it has “irrefutable evidence” of the individuals’ guilt.

“Baha’i organisations are illegal and their connections to Israel and their enmity toward Islam and the Islamic system are absolutely certain and their threat against the national security is a proven fact,” Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, Iran’s prosecutor general, told the state-run Press TV.

But critics say the trial is just the latest instance in a well-documented record of persecution against the Baha’is since the 1979 revolution.

Soon after the establishment of the Islamic republic, dozens of Baha’i members were arrested and executed, including eight of the community’s nine leaders who were hanged without a trial. In the years since, at least 200 have been executed, according to Amnesty International and other rights groups, with many missing and thousands more imprisoned.

Baha’i groups both in and outside Iran say members living there are systematically denied jobs, pensions and the right to inherit property and say that more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university posts since 1979.

Moreover, dozens of Baha’i buildings, cemeteries and holy sites have been seized and destroyed since the revolution. One of the holiest Baha’i sites, the House of Bab in Shiraz, was razed and an Islamic centre was built on its ruins.

Prof Ghanea said the Baha’i experience in Iran since the revolution amounted to “civil death”.

With about 300,000 members, Baha’is are the largest religious minority in Iran, but they “have no legal status though they constitute the largest non-Muslim religious minority community”, she said. “They are, however, singled out at every opportunity for discrimination and exclusion.”

A secret government report drafted by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council and signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and which was uncovered by the UN in 1993, appears to support allegations of officially sanctioned discrimination.

The letter, written in 1991, says the “government’s dealings with [the Baha’is] must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked”. It recommends that Baha’is not be allowed to enrol in schools if they identify themselves as Baha’is and calls for their expulsion from universities.

The letter goes on to urge the government to “deny them employment” or “any position of influence, such as in the educational sector”.

Indeed, out of those on trial several have lost jobs, businesses or been denied education for their faith.

Fariba Kamalabadi, 46, a developmental psychologist, was not allowed to study at a public university; Jamaloddin Khanjani, 75, had his brick-making factory seized in the early 1980s; and Mahvash Sabet, 55, was dismissed from her position as a school principal.

The Baha’i faith was established in the mid-19th century by a Persian nobleman, Baha’ullah, and expounds the spiritual unity of all mankind. The religion’s five million members regard Baha’ullah as the latest in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.

Iran’s Shiite religious establishment considers the religion a heretical offshoot of Islam.

Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution recognises only Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as religious minorities in Iran, granting them representation in parliament and a degree of supervised and limited autonomy. Thus Baha’is have no legal rights and are not permitted to elect leaders of their community.

But despite this, said Ms Ala’i, of the Baha’i International Community, official discrimination has failed to “take root” among the public.

“People in Iran are more and more realising the injustices being done to their fellow citizens,” she said, pointing to a recent public letter signed by 243 Iranians titled We Are Ashamed, asking forgiveness “for the wrongs committed against the Baha’i community of Iran”.

And there are even signs the religious establishment is changing its outlook.

In May, Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri issued a fatwa stating that, “since [Baha’is] are the citizens of this country, they have the rights of a citizen and to live in this country”.

“Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in Quran and by the religious authorities.”

23 February 2009

By Jonathan Spollen

Source: The National

See also 'Baha’i Community in Peril' on the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran website: