Human Rights

Sentenced to death for "apostasy," two Baha'is in Iran await appeals

In Brief: 

A number of governments and organizations outside Iran have recently expressed grave concern over the status of two Bahá'ís in Iran who have been sentenced to death for allegedly committing apostasy - a "crime" that boils down to choosing one faith over another.

A number of governments and organizations outside Iran have recently expressed grave concern over the status of two Bahá'ís in Iran who have been sentenced to death for allegedly committing apostasy - a "crime" that boils down to choosing one faith over another.

NEW YORK - Reports that the Iranian Supreme Court has upheld death sentences against two Bahá'ís who were tried and convicted of "apostasy" for allegedly converting from Islam to the Bahá'í Faith has stimulated international concern that the Iranian Government may start soon executing Bahá'ís again as part of an ongoing campaign of religious persecution.

A number of governments and organizations outside Iran, including the United States, Germany, the European Parliament, Amnesty International and the Bahá'í International Community, have recently expressed grave concern over the status of the two men. They have all said, in one way or another, that imprisonment and capital punishment for merely choosing one faith over another is pure religious persecution and patently against international human rights laws which Iran has agreed to uphold.

Musa Talibi, who was arrested in 1994, and Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, arrested in 1995, have been in prison while awaiting the outcome of appeals to the death sentences that were handed down last year by local Revolutionary Courts on charges of apostasy.

In January, it was learned that the two men have been informed orally that the Supreme Court had recently confirmed their sentences. It has been the general practice of Iranian authorities to convey verdicts orally to prisoners, without giving them the actual texts of court decisions.

Prison Transfers

Both men have also been moved recently within the prison system, another act that raises concerns about the government's intentions. Mr. Talibi, who was imprisoned in Isfahan, has recently been transferred to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Mr. Mahrami, held in Yazd, was recently moved from the prison of the Revolutionary Court in that city to the prison of the Security Information Department there.

"The confirmation of the sentences against Mr. Talibi and Mr. Mahrami brings to four the number of Bahá'ís who are under the sentence of death in Iran," said Techeste Ahderom, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations. "That the sentences of Mr. Talibi and Mr. Mahrami have now been confirmed by the highest court in the land has sent a chill through the hearts of just-minded people everywhere."

Since 1979, more than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed in Iran because of their religious beliefs. Hundreds more have been imprisoned and thousands have been deprived of employment, property and/or access to education in a Government-led campaign of persecution. In recent years, however, some aspects of this oppression have eased. Bahá'ís have increasingly been allowed to travel and no Bahá'í has been executed since 1992.

Campaign of Misinformation

In an apparent attempt to deflect international pressure over this latest action, the Iranian Government has begun a campaign of misinformation with respect to the charges leveled against the two men, said Mr. Ahderom.

In statements to the media and to governments, Iranian officials have recently begun to say that Mr. Talibi and Mr. Mahrami have in fact been sentenced to death for allegedly spying for Israel, a charge that Iranian authorities have often used to bolster claims that Bahá'ís are involved in "political" activities.

According to Reuters News Service, Iran's official news agency, IRNA, quoted the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Courts, Gholam Hoseyn Rahbarpour, as saying the two men were convicted of spying for Israel. "No one in Iran will be prosecuted or punished for having a specific ideology or view," Rahbarpour said, according to the 23 February report.

Yet court records show clearly that it was for "apostasy" that the two men were initially tried, convicted and sentenced to death. According to the record of Mr. Talibi's trial, undertaken by the Revolutionary Court of Isfahan, he "is accused of: apostasy from the religion of Islam, acting against the internal interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and attracting individuals to the misguided sect of Bahá'ísm." The record of Mr. Mahrami's trial, by the Revolutionary Court of Yazd, states that he was charged with "denouncing the religion of Islam and adopting the beliefs of the wayward Bahá'í sect; national apostasy."

"Iran has repeatedly tried to claim that Bahá'ís are involved in illegal political activity. Yet numerous independent investigators, whether working for the UN itself or groups like Amnesty International, have repeatedly concluded that Iran's Bahá'ís are persecuted solely for their religious beliefs."

- Techeste Ahderom, Bahá'í International Community

"Iran has repeatedly tried to claim that Bahá'ís are involved in illegal political activity, and that it is for such activities that Bahá'ís have been imprisoned and executed," said Mr. Ahderom. "Yet numerous independent investigators, whether working for the UN itself or groups like Amnesty International, have repeatedly concluded that Iran's Bahá'ís are persecuted solely for their religious beliefs.

"The charge now that Mr. Talibi and Mr. Mahrami are guilty of spying for Israel or other such crimes, coming after officials and court records have previously made clear that their only crime was a decision to convert from Islam back to the Bahá'í Faith, which they label as a 'misguided sect' and a 'heresy,' shows the degree to which Iranian officials are willing to fabricate in order to placate international opinion," said Mr. Ahderom.

The expression of international concern over Iran's treatment of its Bahá'í community, which numbers more than 300,000 and is the largest religious minority in the country, has been relentless since the early 1980s, when the executions of Bahá'ís were averaging more than one a month.

Report on Religious Intolerance

In February 1996, Iran's credibility was acutely challenged when the UN's Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor of Tunisia, explicitly questioned Iran's claim that the Bahá'í Faith is a political organization and is therefore not subject to international human rights laws against religious discrimination.

"It should not be presumed that the entire community has been politicized or is engaged in political or espionage activities," wrote Prof. Amor last year. "For this reason, the Special Rapporteur recommends that the ban on Bahá'í organizations should be lifted to enable it to organize itself freely through its administrative institutions..."

Then, in October 1996, a report by Maurice Danby Copithorne, who is charged by the UN Commission on Human Rights with monitoring the human rights situation in Iran, noted with concern the apostasy charges against Mr. Talibi and Mr. Mahrami, which were then working through the court system. Mr. Copithorne said also that Bahá'ís "continue to be held in prison because of their beliefs"; that private property belonging to Bahá'ís continues to be confiscated in many regions of the country; and that Bahá'í youth continue to be deprived of access to Iranian universities.

General Assembly Concerned

In December, for the eleventh time in 12 years, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution expressing its concern over the "grave breaches of human rights of the Bahá'ís" in Iran, calling on the Government of the Islamic Republic to "abide by its freely undertaken obligations" under international human rights instruments. The General Assembly also urged Iran to "implement fully" the recommendations of Prof. Amor - recommendations which also called on Iran to allow the Bahá'í community to "engage fully in its religious activities."

In February, Mr. Copithorne prepared an updated report for the Commission on Human Rights. He said he has "continued to receive reports of cases of grave breaches of the human rights of the Bahá'ís in Iran and of situations of discrimination against the members of this religious community, including arbitrary detentions, refusal of entry to universities, dismissals from employment and confiscation of properties."

Mr. Copithorne said that Bahá'ís have been "arrested and detained for short periods in various cities of the country" and that the "private ownership of property by Bahá'ís continues to be generally disregarded."

"In Yazd alone there were reportedly more than 150 cases relating to the confiscation of property during 1996," Mr. Copithorne wrote. "The majority of the Bahá'ís in Yazd are now prohibited from conducting any business transactions. In Kashan, a mosque was built on land confiscated from Bahá'ís. Pharmacies owned by Bahá'ís in Sari and Qa'im Shahr were reportedly closed down and sealed."

Share