Human Rights

Baha'is express concern over turmoil in Iran as their co-religionists remain in prison

In Brief: 
  • Bahá'ís gave support to July non-partisan Global Day of Action on Iran
  • Seven Bahá'í leaders still in prison, trial pending
  • International concern about Bahá'í prisoners from Canada, Australia, EU, USCIRF, and Amnesty International

NEW YORK - Against the backdrop of growing turmoil in Iran since the disputed national elections there in June, Bahá'ís around the world have sought to express their concern over reports of increasing human rights violations in that country.

In July, for example, many Bahá'ís around the world gave support to the Global Day of Action on Iran, a non-partisan effort organized in some 110 cities around the world to "condemn the widespread and systematic violations of the Iranian people's human rights and to call for full restoration of their human and civil rights."

The Global Day of Action was sponsored by a number of prominent individuals and organizations, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian League for Defense of Human Rights (LDDHI), Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme (FIDH), and 42 Arab Human Rights Organizations. It was also supported by the Bahá'í International Community (BIC).

"It is with aching hearts that Bahá'ís around the world have watched events unfold in Iran," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the BIC to the United Nations. "Iran is, of course, the birthplace of the Bahá'í Faith, and that country is very dear to Bahá'ís.

"In whatever country they reside, Bahá'ís strive to promote the welfare of society. They are enjoined to work alongside their compatriots in fostering fellowship and unity and in establishing peace and justice. They seek to uphold their own rights, as well as the rights of others, through whatever legal means are available to them," said Ms. Dugal.

Durban Review and Iran

Another expression of general concern about human rights in Iran came in April, when the BIC joined the FIDH and the LDDHI in issuing a press release urging Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "address the severe forms of discrimination faced by minority groups in his own country" when he spoke at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva that month.

"By coming to the Durban Review Conference, President Ahmadinejad signals a commitment to the conference's goals of eliminating all forms of discrimination and intolerance," said Diane Ala'i, the BIC's representative to the United Nations in Geneva. "His first move on returning home, then, should be to address the severe discrimination and persecution that have flourished under his tenure."

That press release took note of Iran's ongoing discrimination against the Kurdish minority and others, of the manner in which Iran denies women basic rights, and of the widespread religious discrimination affecting Bahá'ís, Christians, Jews, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, and other minorities.

In a letter to Iranian Bahá'ís on 26 June, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith urged them to avoid the partisan politics surrounding the election but to respond to by helping friends and neighbors where possible.

"Decades of hardship have prepared each of you to stand as a beacon of strength in the circle of your family and friends, your neighbors and acquaintances, radiating hope and compassion to all those in need," wrote the Universal House of Justice.

"Keep alive in your hearts the feeling of confidence that the future of Iran holds bright promise, the certitude that the light of knowledge will inevitably dispel the clouds of ignorance, the conviction that concern for justice will protect the nation from falling prey to calumny, and the belief that love will ultimately conquer hatred and enmity."

Status of Bahá'í leaders

Of concern to the worldwide Bahá'í community, as well, is the situation of the more than 300,000 members of the Bahá'í Faith in Iran, that country's largest religious minority, who have faced increasing oppression in recent years.

Of special concern has been the status of seven Bahá'í leaders, who were arrested more than a year ago and who have since been held in Tehran's Evin Prison. For more than a year, they had no access to lawyers. Iranian press reports say the seven face accusations of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic."

In early June, family members were unofficially told that the seven were to be put on trial on 11 July. In late July, however, officials sent notice to defense lawyers that it would be held on 18 August. On 17 August, however, the trial was postponed until 18 October 2009.

The seven are Ms. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Ms. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm. All but one of the group were arrested on 14 May 2008 at their homes in Tehran. Ms. Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while in Mashhad.

Their ongoing imprisonment - and pending trial - is particularly alarming because of their leadership position as former members of a national-level coordinating group known as the "Friends in Iran." Some 25 years ago, other Bahá'í leaders were executed after being rounded up in a manner similar to the way in which these seven were arrested last year.

International concern

The situation of the seven has been highlighted in recent months by governments and human rights organizations, who, even before the current turmoil in Iran, began to voice concern over their long and unjust imprisonment.

On 14 May, the one-year anniversary of the imprisonment of six of the seven, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon issued a statement calling "upon the Iranian authorities to immediately release the seven Bahá'í leaders and to cease the harassment of members of the Bahá'í Faith."

On 25 May, the Presidency of the European Union issued a statement expressing "deep concern about the increasing violation of religious freedom in Iran." The statement specifically named 13 individuals - five Christians, seven Bahá'ís, and one Shiite - who the EU said are currently imprisoned for legitimate expression of religious belief.

About the Bahá'ís, the EU said "evidence suggests that the persecution deliberately aims to suppress Bahá'í religious identity and legitimate community activities."

Also on 25 May, the Australian Parliament called on the government of Iran to release seven imprisoned Bahá'í leaders "without delay." The Parliament also called on Iran to "respect rights to freedom of religion and the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and association, in accordance with international human rights conventions."

On 9 July, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) demanded the release of the seven, saying in a press release that their possible trial was "just one manifestation of the much broader pattern and practice of the theocratically supported repression that marks Iran's current electoral crisis."

The Commission's statement came in response to a letter sent to it by Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who spent almost four months in an Iranian jail. She wrote requesting US government intervention in the Bahá'í case, noting that "In addition to the hundreds of Iranians who have been detained in the context of Iran's disputed presidential poll, many other 'security detainees' arrested long before the June election remain behind bars."

On 10 July, Amnesty International issued a press release calling on Iranian authorities to release the seven, saying it considered them to be "prisoners of conscience."