Human Rights

Lives of service: Profiles of seven Baha'i leaders imprisoned in Iran

In Brief: 

Their ongoing imprisonment and pending trial on false charges of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic" is particularly alarming because of their leadership position and the fact that 25 years ago other Bahá'í leaders were rounded up and executed in a similar manner.

Summary statistics on the number of Bahá’í arrests and imprisonments in Iran since August 2004

  • 235 Bahá’ís have been arrested since August 2004.
  • 34 Bahá’ís are currently imprisoned in Iran.
  • 87 Bahá’ís have been arrested and released on bail and are awaiting trial.
  • 9 Bahá’ís have been arrested and released without bail.
  • 85 Bahá’ís have been tried and sentenced and are free pending appeal or summons to begin serving their sentences.
  • 10 Bahá’ís have been tried and sentenced and have completed their prison terms.
  • 8 Bahá’ís have had charges cleared in their original trials or have had their verdicts overturned on appeal.
  • 3 Bahá’ís have served their prison sentences and have begun their terms of exile.

During the more than ten months the seven have been held in prison, no evidence against them has been brought to light. Further, at no time during their incarceration have the accused been given access to their legal counsel, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi. Mrs. Ebadi has herself been threatened, intimidated, and vilified in the news media since taking on their case and has not been given access to their case files.

After all Bahá'í elected and appointed institutions were banned in the early 1980s, the "Friends in Iran" was then formed with the full knowledge of the government. Since then, the group has served as an ad hoc coordinating body for the 300,000 Bahá'ís in that country, and the various governments in power in Iran have dealt routinely with its members.

In early February 2009, reports emerged from Iran that the government was planning to put on trial seven Bahá'í leaders, held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since May 2008.

They are to be accused of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic," according to a report in Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency on 11 February 2009.

The Bahá'í International Community, which has all along decried their arrest and imprisonment as unjust, immediately stated that such accusations are false, reiterating that the seven were being held solely because of their religious beliefs.

The news stirred an international outcry, with protests coming from governments, human rights groups, and others. The European Union, for example, issued a strong statement expressing "deep concern" over a possible trial and the US Department of State called the charges against the Bahá'ís "baseless."

Amnesty International, among other organizations, issued an "urgent action" appeal on behalf of the seven, calling for their "immediate and unconditional release." Hundreds newspapers and other media outlets around the world carried the story.

During the more than ten months the seven have been held in prison, no evidence against them has been brought to light. Further, at no time during their incarceration have the accused been given access to their legal counsel, Mrs. Shirin Ebadi. Mrs. Ebadi has herself been threatened, intimidated, and vilified in the news media since taking on their case and has not been given access to their case files.

As of press time, no trial date had as yet been set by the government, nor had further information emerged about the possible charges against them.

All have served both Iranian society and the Bahá'í community extensively. As well, like most Iranian Bahá'ís, they have all experienced varying degrees of persecution since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979.

Their ongoing imprisonment - and pending trial - is particularly alarming because of their leadership position as 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. Moreover, the government is well aware that the charges against the seven are false. After all Bahá'í elected and appointed institutions were banned in the early 1980s, the "Friends" was formed with the full knowledge of the government. Since then, the group has served as an ad hoc coordinating body for the 300,000 Bahá'ís in that country, and the various governments in power in Iran have dealt routinely with its members. The seven people arrested last spring constitute the entire current membership of the Friends, which is one reason their sweeping arrests are so alarming.

In these profiles, there are a number of references to the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). The BIHE was established by Bahá'ís in the late 1980s as an alternative institution of higher education after Bahá'í youth were banned from public and private universities in Iran in the early 1980s. Accordingly, many of the Friends or their family members received education from the BIHE or its adjunct, the Advanced Bahá'í Studies Institute (ABSI), or they have contributed to its work as lecturers or instructors.

In recounting the voluntary service these individuals rendered to the Bahá'í community, there are also references to various institutions, such as national or local governing councils, known as Spiritual Assemblies, various committees, or the Auxiliary Board, a group of individuals appointed to inspire, encourage, and promote learning. Most of these institutions have since been banned or dissolved in Iran because of government persecution.

Fariba Kamalabadi – arrested 14 May 2008 at her home in Tehran

A developmental psychologist and mother of three, Fariba Kamalabadi was denied the chance to study at a public university as a youth because of her Bahá'í belief. Because of her volunteer work for the Bahá'í community, she was arrested twice in recent years and held for periods of one and two months respectively before her arrest and imprisonment last May.

Mrs. Kamalabadi, 46, was born in Tehran on 12 September 1962. An excellent student, she graduated from high school with honors but was nevertheless barred from attending university. Instead, in her mid-30s, she embarked on an eight-year period of informal study and ultimately received an advanced degree in developmental psychology from the Bahá'í Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an alternative institution established by the Bahá'í community of Iran to provide higher education for its young people.

Mrs. Kamalabadi married fellow Bahá'í Ruhollah Taefi in 1982. They have three children. Varqa Taefi, about 24, received a doctoral degree in political science and international relations in the United Kingdom and is currently continuing his research in China. Alhan Taefi, 23, has studied psychology at the Advanced Bahá'í Studies Institute (ABSI). Taraneh Taefi, 14, is a junior high school student in Tehran.

Mrs. Kamalabadi's experience with persecution extends beyond her immediate situation. Her father was fired from his job as physician in the government health service in the 1980s because he was a Bahá'í, and he was later imprisoned and tortured.

Jamaloddin Khanjani – arrested 14 May 2008 at his home in Tehran

A once successful factory owner who lost his business after the 1979 Islamic revolution because of his belief in the Bahá'í Faith, Jamaloddin Khanjani spent most of the 1980s under the threat of death from Iranian authorities.

Now 75, Mr. Khanjani was born 27 July 1933 in the city of Sangsar. He grew up on a dairy farm in Semnan province and never obtained more than a high school education. Yet his dynamic personality soon led to a successful career in industrial production - and as a Bahá'í leader.

In his professional career, he has worked as an employee of the Pepsi Cola Company in Iran, where he was a purchasing supervisor. He later left Pepsi Cola and started a charcoal production business. Later he established a brick-making factory, which was the first automated such factory in Iran, ultimately employing several hundred people.

In the early 1980s, he was forced to shut down that factory and abandon it, putting most of his employees out of work, because of the persecution he faced as a Bahá'í. The government later confiscated the factory.

Mr. Khanjani was later able to establish a mechanized farm on properties owned by his family.

In his career of voluntary service to his religious community, Mr. Khanjani was at various points a member of the local Spiritual Assembly of Isfahan, a regional level Auxiliary Board member, and, in the early 1980s, a member of the so-called "third" National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Iran - a group that in 1984 saw four of its nine members executed by the government. Eight members of the so-called "second" National Spiritual Assembly were executed in December 1981, while nine members of the "first" National Spiritual Assembly were apparently kidnapped in August 1980 and are presumed dead.

Mr. Khanjani married Ashraf Sobhani in the mid-1950s. They have four children. Farida Khanjani, 51, is a chiropractor working in China. Maria Khanjani, about 49, an artist, is married with two children and resides in Tehran. Alaeddin Khanjani, about 48, an optometrist residing in Tehran, is married with two children. And Emilia Khanjani, about 45, is married with two children and resides in Tehran.

Mr. Khanjani was arrested and imprisoned at least three times before his current incarceration.

Afif Naemi – arrested 14 May 2008 at his home in Tehran

An industrialist who was unable to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor because as a Bahá'í he was denied access to a university education, Afif Naemi diverted his attention to business, one of the few avenues of work open to Bahá'ís, taking over his father-in-law's blanket and textile factory.

He is 47 and was born on 6 September 1961 in Yazd. His father died when he was three and he was raised in part by his uncles. While still in elementary school, he was sent to live with relatives in Jordan and, although he started with no knowledge of Arabic, he soon rose to the top of his class.

He has long been active in volunteer Bahá'í service. He has taught Bahá'í children's classes, conducted classes for adults, taught at the BIHE, and been a member of the Auxiliary Board.

He married Shohreh Khallokhi in the early 1980s. They have two sons, Fareed Naimi, 27, who is married and a graduate of the ABSI, and Sina Naimi, 22, who has studied music.

Saeid Rezaie – arrested 14 May 2008 at his home in Tehran

A 47-year-old agricultural engineer who has run a successful farming equipment business in Fars Province for more than 20 years, Saeid Rezaie is also known for his extensive scholarship on Bahá'í topics, and is the author of several books.

Born in Abadan on 27 September 1957, Mr. Rezaie spent his childhood in Shiraz, where he completed high school with distinction. He then obtained a degree in agricultural engineering from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, attending with the help of a scholarship funded from outside the country.

In 1981, he married Shaheen Rowhanian. They have three children, two daughters and a son. Martha, 24, is studying library science. Ma'man, 21, is studying architecture. Payvand, 12, is in his second year of middle school.

Mr. Rezaie has actively served the Bahá'í community since he was a young man. He taught Bahá'í children's classes for many years, and served the Bahá'í Education and Bahá'í Life Institutes. He was also a member of the National Education Institute.

During the early 1980s, when persecution of Bahá'ís was particularly intense and widespread, Mr. Rezaie moved to northern Iran and worked as a farming manager for a time. Later he moved to Kerman and worked as a carpenter and at other odd jobs in part because of the difficulties Bahá'ís faced in finding formal employment or operating businesses.

In 1985, he opened an agricultural equipment company with a Bahá'í friend in Fars Province. That company prospered and won wide respect among farmers in the region.

He has experienced various forms of persecution for his Bahá'í belief, including an arrest and detention in 2006 that led to 40 days in solitary confinement.

His two daughters were among 54 Bahá'í youth who were arrested in Shiraz in May 2006 while engaged in a humanitarian project aimed at helping underprivileged young people. They were later released but three of their colleagues were sentenced to four years in prison on false charges and are currently incarcerated in Shiraz.

Mahvash Sabet – arrested in Mashhad on 5 March 2008

Mahvash Sabet, 55, is a teacher and school principal who was dismissed from public education for being a Bahá'í. For the last 15 years, she has been director of the BIHE. She also served as secretary to the Friends.

Born Mahvash Shahriyari on 4 February 1953 in Ardestan, Mrs. Sabet moved to Tehran when she was in the fifth grade. In university, she studied psychology, obtaining a bachelor's degree.

She began her professional career as a teacher and also worked as a principal at several schools. In her professional role, she also collaborated with the National Literacy Committee of Iran. After the Islamic revolution, however, like thousands of other Iranian Bahá'í educators, she was fired from her job and blocked from working in public education.

It was after this that she became director of the BIHE, where she also has taught psychology and management.

She married Siyvash Sabet on 21 May 1973. They have a son, Foroud Sabet, 33, and a daughter, Negar Sabet, 24, both born in Hamadan.

While all of the other Friends were arrested at their homes in Tehran on 14 May 2008, Mrs. Sabet was arrested in Mashhad on 5 March 2008. Although she resides in Tehran, she had been summoned to Mashhad by the Ministry of Intelligence, ostensibly on the grounds that she was required to answer questions related to the burial of an individual in the Bahá'í cemetery in that city.

Behrouz Tavakkoli – arrested 14 May 2008 at his home in Tehran

Behrouz Tavakkoli, 57, is a former social worker who lost his government job in the early 1980s because of his Bahá'í belief. Prior to his current imprisonment, he has also experienced intermittent detainment and harassment and, three years ago, he was jailed for four months without charge, spending most of the time in solitary confinement.

Born 1 June 1951 in Mashhad, Mr.Tavakkoli studied psychology in university and then completed two years of service in the army, where he was a lieutenant. He later took additional training and then specialized in the care of the physically and mentally handicapped, working in a government position until his firing in 1981 or 1982.

Mr. Tavakkoli married Tahereh Fakhri Tuski at the age of 23. They have two sons, Naeim and Nabil. Naeim, 31, currently lives with his wife in Canada where he works as a civil engineer. Nabil, 24, is currently studying architecture at the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education.

Mr. Tavakkoli was elected to the local Bahá'í Spiritual Assembly in Mashhad in the late 1960s or early 1970s while a student at the university there, and he later served on another local Spiritual Assembly in Sari before such institutions were banned in the early 1980s.

To support himself and his family after he was fired from his government position, Mr. Tavakkoli established a small millwork carpentry shop in the city of Gonbad. There he also established a series of classes in Bahá'í studies for adults and young people.

He has been periodically detained by the authorities. Among the worst of these incidents was three years ago when he was held incommunicado for 10 days by intelligence agents, along with fellow Friends' member Fariba Kamalabadi. He was then held for four months and during that confinement developed serious kidney and orthotic problems.

Vahid Tizfahm – arrested 14 May 2008 at his home in Tehran

A 35-year-old optometrist and owner of an optical shop in Tabriz, Vahid Tizfahm was born 16 May 1973 in the city of Urumiyyih. He spent his childhood and youth there and, after receiving his high school diploma in mathematics, he went to Tabriz at the age of 18 to study to become an optician. He later also studied sociology at the Advanced Bahá'í Studies Institute (ABSI). In early 2008, he moved to Tehran.

At the age of 23, Mr. Tizfahm married Furuzandeh Nikumanesh. They have a son, Samim, 9, who is in the fourth grade.

Since his youth, Mr. Tizfahm has served the Bahá'í community in a variety of capacities. At one time he was a member of the Bahá'í National Youth Committee. Later, he was appointed to the Auxiliary Board. He has also taught local Bahá'í children's classes.

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