Human Rights

Iranian Baha'is face new attacks - and also gain increased support

NEW YORK - In recent months, Iranian Bahá'ís have continued to face increasing persecution from their government and its proxies. At the same time, however, they are receiving growing support and succor from both inside and outside Iran.

Among recent developments:

  • At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a 20-page report expressing concern over human rights violations in Iran against Bahá'ís - and other minorities, women and juveniles.
  • In July, Iranian rights activist and Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi took the case of defending seven Bahá'í leaders who were jailed in March and May - and for this she has been severely attacked in the government-controlled news media.
  • Another sign of internal support for Bahá'ís came with the release, by an Iranian human rights group, of a secret report that essentially exonerated three Bahá'ís currently imprisoned in Shiraz. The confidential report, written by an inspector for a regional representative of Iran's Supreme Leader, found the Bahá'ís, arrested in May 2005 along with 50 others, were essentially innocent of government charges. Yet the government has been unwilling to release them.
  • Violence directed against Iranian Bahá'ís by the government or its proxies continues, and arson against Bahá'í homes and vehicles emerged as the latest tactic of oppression against them.
  • Bahá'í university students continue to face impediments to enrollment or expulsion after matriculation, and recent court cases have confirmed that such exclusion remains official government policy.

"The Bahá'ís of Iran face increasing attacks, arson, rising imprisonments, the deprivation of education and income, and day-to-day harassment," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations. "Yet, in the midst of this grim reality, there is a ray of hope in the fact that many individuals and organizations both inside and outside of Iran are raising their voices in support."

Iranian activists give support

A number of Iranian human rights activists, like Shirin Ebadi, as well as prominent Iranian journalists and writers, have in recent months given support to Bahá'ís - or condemned the government for its oppression of them.

In September, for example, noted Iranian activist Ahmad Batebi published an extensive article on the prominent online newspaper Rooz titled "The Bahais and higher education in Iran." The article discussed government efforts to block Bahá'ís from attending university and the recent arrests of Bahá'í leaders, outlined Iran's obligations under its constitution to protect freedom of religion, and concluded with a rhetorical question, asking why the Islamic Republic of Iran seems "so afraid of any contact between the people and not only the Bahá'ís but every religious minority group."

Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, likewise, has recently expressed concern about the situation of Iran's Bahá'ís in several recent speeches or articles, including an article titled "The right of being Bahá'í versus being Bahá'í with rights," published on 11 June 2008 on his Web site.

The report of the UN Secretary General on human rights in Iran devoted nearly a full page to the situation of Iran's 300,000-member Bahá'í community, which is that country's largest religious minority.

"Reports continue to be received about members of the Bahá'í community being subjected to arbitrary detention, false imprisonment, confiscation and destruction of property, denial of employment and government benefits, and denial of access to higher education," Mr. Ban's report said.

"A significant increase has been reported in violence targeting Bahá'ís and their homes, shops, farms and cemeteries throughout the country. There have also been several cases involving torture or ill-treatment in custody."

Mr. Ban's report also discussed the arrest and imprisonment of seven Bahá'í leaders in March and May, who are still held at Evin Prison.

Shirin Ebadi is attacked

In July, Nobel laureate Ebadi said she would help to defend the seven - and she was almost immediately attacked in the government-controlled news media. On 6 August, for example, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) ran a story suggesting Mrs. Ebadi's daughter had become a Bahá'í. The story also sought to cast suspicion on Mrs. Ebadi by describing the Bahá'í Faith as "perverse" and connecting it to "foreign governments."

Mrs. Ebadi responded by filing a lawsuit against the IRNA, according to the Associated Press, charging it with "spreading lies and insults." Mrs. Ebadi also reiterated that she and her daughter were both Shi'ite Muslims, the majority faith in Iran.

The Bahá'í International Community also responded with a statement of reply to the allegations against Mrs. Ebadi - along with related accusations that the seven Bahá'í prisoners had "confessed" to operating an "illegal" organization with ties to Israel.

The statement, issued 12 August, noted that such false allegations against Bahá'ís and those who defend them are part of "an established pattern whereby the authorities make or purvey false statements about the Bahá'ís, then deliberately repeat and widely disseminate these falsehoods and misrepresentations to give them credence."

Further, the statement said, such false allegations are an effort to "stir up irrational fears and prejudices" and intimidate anyone in Iran who speaks out on behalf of Bahá'ís.

"The intention, of course, is to foment hatred and mistrust of the Bahá'ís so that there exists within the general population an atmosphere wherein egregious violations of the Bahá'ís' human rights are either condoned or not questioned," said the BIC statement. "Moreover, having themselves done everything possible to rouse the population, the authorities have been disingenuously telling the Bahá'ís that they will be incapable of protecting them when mob violence erupts."

Arson a new tactic

The statement also took note of increasing acts of violence against Bahá'ís, and specifically the rise in arson against Bahá'í homes and vehicles.

Since April 2007, there have been least a dozen cases of arson targeting Bahá'ís, including the torching of the car of a prominent Bahá'í in Rafsanjan in July 2008 and an incident where Molotov cocktails were thrown into the front courtyard of the home of prominent Bahá'ís in Vilashahr, also in July.

In both cases, the incidents were preceded by threats against those individuals or their families. Soheil Naeimi, the owner of the torched car, and 10 other Bahá'í families in the town had received threatening letters from a group calling itself the "Anti-Bahaism Movement of the Youth of Rafsanjan." The Molotov cocktails followed anonymous threats against the Vilashahr homeowner, Khusraw Dehghani and his wife, Dr. Huma Agahi, that had forced Dr. Agahi to close her clinic in nearby Najafabad where she had practiced medicine for 28 years.

University students denied

The beginning of another academic year for university students in Iran also brought reports of continuing efforts by the government in its secret but well-documented plan to deny Bahá'í youth access to higher education.

Bahá'í students attempting to gain admittance to universities and other institutions found that their entrance examination results were frozen and their files listed as "incomplete" on the Web site of the national testing organization.

Last year, for the 2007-2008 academic year, of the more than 1,000 Bahá'í students who sat for and satisfactorily completed the entrance examination, nearly 800 were excluded because of "incomplete files."

Without complete files, enrollment in all public and most private universities in Iran is impossible.

As well, Bahá'ís who had successfully enrolled in universities in previous years continue to be expelled as their identities become known to officials. And those who have sought redress through the courts have been disappointed, their cases rejected.

Secret report proves innocence

In October, a report posted by an Iranian human rights group on its Web site indicated that the government knows that the three Bahá'ís currently imprisoned in Shiraz are innocent - and yet the government continues to keep them locked up.

The report - signed by "Vali Rustami, inspector and legal advisor of the Office of the Representative of the Supreme Leader for the province of Fars" - was published by the Human Rights Activists of Iran on 23 October. The report was addressed to the representative of the Supreme Leader in the province and states that it was done at his request.

Inspector Rustami examined the case of the three Bahá'ís, Haleh Rouhi, Raha Sabet, and Sasan Taqva, who have been imprisoned since November 2007 on four-year terms. The three, along with 51 other Bahá'ís and a number of Muslims, had been engaged in providing literacy classes and other humanitarian activities to help poor youth in Shiraz when they were rounded up by government agents on 19 May 2006.

While their Muslim colleagues and one Bahá'í among them were released immediately, 53 Bahá'ís were held for periods ranging from several days to more than a month.

Then, in mid 2007, the three were convicted on spurious charges, apparently relating to accusations that they had been engaged in the "indirect teaching" of the Bahá'í Faith, considered illegal in Iran despite international laws upholding freedom of religion.

Although no formal charges were ever made against the three, a government spokesman said in January 2008 that they had been engaged in anti-government "propaganda."

But the newly released Rustami report, dated 16 June 2008, states that not only was there no mention of religion in their activities, but that youths who attended the classes told him they wanted to continue. "They stated 'We ... truthfully learned a lot from this group and would like them to come back to us again,'" the investigator said in his report.

Last January, Amnesty International issued an action alert on behalf of the Ms. Rouhi, Ms. Sabet, and Mr. Taqva, suggesting they were prisoners of conscience, held solely for their religious beliefs, and "calling on the authorities not to torture or ill-treat them."

"It is a manifest injustice that the young Bahá'ís of Shiraz continue to remain in prison when even an internal investigation has essentially proved their innocence, even under the twisted terms that define criminality in Iran," said Ms. Dugal. "The government's lies are indefensible."

Ms. Dugal said the arrests and imprisonment of the Bahá'ís have always been wrongful, since in any event international law protects the right to "teach" one's religion.

"However, in this case, no such 'teaching' was done," she said. "The Bahá'ís and their Muslim colleagues were solely engaged in a humanitarian effort to serve poor children and young people in their region through free classes in literacy, hygiene, and the promotion of good moral values."