Human Rights

In Iran, three are unjustly imprisoned for helping underprivileged children

GENEVA — The idea was to help poor children, not land in jail.

But prison time was the result for three Bahá’ís in the Iranian city of Shiraz after they helped start social service projects to help underprivileged children and youth.

Haleh Rouhi, 29, Raha Sabet, 33, and Sasan Taqva, 32, were each sentenced to four years in prison and then suddenly taken into custody on 19 November 2007.

The crime the three were charged with, according to a government official, is “propaganda against the regime.” That’s what judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told the Agence France Presse at a press briefing in Tehran on 29 January 2008.

Accounts that have emerged from Iran tell a far different story. According to Diane Ala’i, a Bahá’í International Community representative to the United Nations in Geneva, the three were in fact engaged in social service projects that most governments would praise.

“Far from working against the government, the Bahá’ís who were arrested in May 2006 were engaged in humanitarian projects aimed at helping underprivileged young people in the city of Shiraz,” said Ms. Ala’i.

“Charges by the government that suggest otherwise are nothing less than an attempt to repress Iranian Bahá’ís generally and to deflect international criticism of Iran’s human rights record,” she said.

The projects were launched in 2004 by a group of Bahá’ís — including Ms. Rouhi, Ms. Sabet, and Mr. Taqva — who were concerned about low literacy rates and other problems facing poor children in and around Shiraz.

They began discussing what kinds of social action they could take, anxious to act on the humanitarian impulse found not only in the Bahá’í Faith but in all religions.

In fact, it was a Muslim friend of one member of the group who suggested that the program be instituted to help school children in Katsbas, a poverty-stricken suburb of Shiraz. The project aimed specifically at tutoring children to help them prepare for their end-of-term school examinations.

Those that served as tutors, who included Muslims, met with the children every Friday morning for four hours. In the project’s infancy, the tutors would lay out rugs in front of the houses of the parents so that the families could see that their only intention was to serve the children and therefore be put at ease. The mothers would stand nearby to observe the lessons and exercises the tutors were delivering. Many expressed interest in learning their methods.

The tutors started working with 20 children, but the number quickly swelled to 120. At the end of the school term, the parents of the children asked whether the activities could continue. At that point the group decided to extend their services to include assisting the children to acquire social and moral skills so that they themselves could become the agents of advancement in their own lives and in the society.

By summer 2005, the number of children involved in the program had increased so significantly that it was necessary to divide them into two groups, each group comprising more than 100 students and 30 tutors.

At the same time, at the suggestion of a Muslim friend, a similar project was started in another locality, Sahlabad, where children and their families had voiced keen interest in such an undertaking. That project involved 100 children, also tutored by both Bahá’ís and Muslims.

Concurrently with the project in Sahlabad, the group commenced a further initiative involving 100 children and young teens being assisted by 14 tutors at an educational center in Shiraz. That project was carried out within the ambit of the program “Protection of the Rights of Children” in Shiraz, which was registered with the Ministry of the Interior.

In addition, the group organized a weekly program offering art classes to young cancer patients at a hospital for children and youth in Shiraz. This program, which had been enthusiastically received by the head of the hospital, also ran for a year until it was halted because of the arrest of the Bahá’ís. During that same period, members of the group made regular visits to orphanages and facilities for physically and mentally challenged children.

These efforts continued for another year. Then, on 19 May 2006, tutors and project leaders in six locations were simultaneously arrested by the police. In all, 54 Bahá’ís and about 10 Muslims were taken into custody.

The Muslims (and one Bahá’í) were released immediately; the remaining 53 Bahá’ís were released over the course of the next few days and weeks. Ms. Rouhi, Ms. Sabet, and Mr. Taqva were held for nearly a month.

In August 2006, the 53 were notified by a local court that they had been convicted of “offenses relating to state security.” Statements made in court also seemed to indicate that their real offense was “teaching the Bahá’í Faith.”

This is a charge that Bahá’ís have often faced, despite the fact that Iran has signed international human rights covenants that protect the right to “teach” one’s religion.

“While teaching the Bahá’í Faith cannot be considered a crime of any sort, given that freedom of religion is protected by international law, the fact is that the Bahá’ís who were arrested almost two years ago in Shiraz were not working to spread Bahá’í teachings — rather they had initiated and were participating in a number of literacy and youth empowerment projects in various locations in and near Shiraz.

“Moreover, the group had introduced the projects to the Islamic Council of the city of Shiraz in 2005 and had subsequently received a letter from the Cultural Commission granting permission to continue their activities,” said Ms. Ala’i.

Ms. Ala’i also discussed charges, made in court documents, that the use of a workbook titled “Breezes of Confirmation,” which focuses on teaching language skills and basic moral principles, constitutes part of the evidence that Bahá’ís were teaching the Bahá’í Faith.

“The fact is,” said Ms. Ala’i, “‘Breezes of Confirmation’ makes no direct reference to the Bahá’í Faith — and its lessons reflect moral lessons common to all religions.”

In November 2007, Ms. Rouhi, Ms. Sabet, and Mr. Taqva were told by telephone to go to the Ministry of Information office in Shiraz to retrieve items that had been confiscated in the May 2006 arrests. Instead of receiving their belongings, however, they were immediately imprisoned.

In January 2008, Amnesty International and the US State Department protested their incarceration, followed in February by a statement of concern from the Presidency of the European Union.

“We urge the regime to release all individuals held without due process and a fair trial, including the three young Bahá’í teachers being held in a Ministry of Intelligence detention center in Shiraz,” said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the State Department, on 23 January.

Amnesty International issued its appeal on 25 January. It calls for human rights activists around the world to write directly to Iranian government officials on behalf of the Bahá’í prisoners, asking why they have been detained and calling on authorities not to ill-treat or torture them.

Ms. Ala’i said in January that the Bahá’í International Community is gravely concerned for the welfare of the three Bahá’í prisoners, noting in particular that Mr. Taqva has an injured leg from an automobile accident. “The problem with his leg is extremely serious and painful,” said Ms. Ala’i. “It is understood that he requires surgery to remove a metal pin that had been inserted previously.”