Human Rights

Trial now reportedly over, seven Iranian Baha'i leaders face harsh conditions in long term incarceration

In Brief: 
  • After a three-day court appearance in June, seven Iranian Bahá’í leaders, were handed long prison sentences
  • An international outcry accompanied the trial and sentencing, with the UN, governments and NGOs calling for their release
  • They have been transferred to Gohardasht prison, notorious for its overcrowded and unsanitary conditions

NEW YORK — Seven Iranian Bahá’í leaders, already unjustly held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for more than two years, have reportedly been sentenced to long prison terms following a series of court appearances that culminated in a three-day session in June.

As is often the case with Iran’s legal system, court papers have not been made public. However, reports indicate that the seven have been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

On 9 August 2010, the seven were transferred to Gohardasht prison in Karaj, outside Tehran, apparently to begin serving their sentences.

Gohardasht prison is known for its overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Since their transfer from Evin, the seven have suffered from various medical problems as a result.

“Amongst other indignities, they are forced to endure appalling filth, pestilence, exposure to disease, and quarters so crammed that it is difficult for them to lie down or even to perform their daily prayers,” said Bani Dugal, the representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations. “It is clear from recent reports that their health has deteriorated and they have no access to adequate medical treatments.”

More recently, the seven have been transferred within the prison to sections where they are even more crowded, with less access to fresh air. The two women, in particular, have been put into a section where conditions are particularly harsh.

During their trial and since, the seven received numerous expressions of support from the United Nations, governments and human rights organizations around the world. Among other things, governments and others have asked Iranian authorities to immediately release the seven on bail, to prove that their trial was fair, and to stop the religious persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran.

International outcry

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is one of the senior members of the legal team for the seven, told the BBC’s Persian service in August that she was “stunned” by the lengthy sentence.

“I have read their case file page by page and did not find anything proving the accusations, nor did I find any document that could prove the claims of the prosecutor,” said Ms. Ebadi.

“I have read their case file page by page and did not find anything proving the accusations, nor did I find any document that could prove the claims of the prosecutor”

— Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon specifically mentioned the seven in a report on human rights in Iran that he released in October. Among other things, Mr. Ban’s report noted that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed “deep concern” over the absence of international observers and the lack of due process in that trial. [See also page 11]

A statement by the European Union in August summarized the position of many governments.

“The European Union expresses its serious concern about the sentencing of seven Bahá’í leaders in Iran,” said a declaration by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, calling for their immediate release.

“The verdict appears to be based on the defendants belonging to a religious minority and the judicial process was seriously flawed, respecting neither Iran’s international commitments under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) nor its national legislation regarding fair trial rights,” said Baroness Ashton.

Other governments and groups issuing statements of protest or concern have included Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain the U.K. and the U.S.A., along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, and Christian Solidarity.

As well, prominent individuals and groups in Brazil, India, South Africa and other countries that have relatively friendly relations with Iran have also issued expressions of concern about the trial and imprisonment of the seven.

In December, for example, former Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said: “I appeal to Iran and join the UN and the rest of the international community to treat the Bahá’ís with respect and provide justice to the imprisoned seven leaders of the Bahá’í community.”

Religious leaders concerned

In October, top religious leaders in the United Kingdom, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, issued a statement describing the sentencing of the seven as a “gross violation of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion.”

The seven — Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm — were all members of a national-level group that, with the government’s knowledge, helped see to the minimum spiritual needs of Iran’s Bahá’í community.

They were arrested in 2008 and held at Evin prison for nearly a year without formal charges or access to lawyers. On 12 January 2010, the seven were brought to a preliminary appearance at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, where they were charged with espionage, “propaganda activities against the Islamic order,” the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, the sending of secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and “corruption on earth.”

After several more preliminary appearances, apparently to settle procedural issues, the seven were put on trial for three days, from 12-14 June. The trial was closed to the media and outsiders, although several family members were allowed to attend. Throughout the process, the seven have categorically denied all the charges against them.

A catalogue of abuses

Representatives of the Bahá’í International Community who have followed the proceedings closely say that despite the lack of information that has been publicly available, it is nevertheless clear that the arrest, detention and trial of the seven leaders amounts to a lengthy catalogue of abuses and illegal actions, both under international law and Iranian statutes.

“Iranian law requires that detainees be quickly and formally charged with crimes. The seven Bahá’ís were held at least nine months before any word of the charges against them were uttered by officials, and even then it was at a press conference, not in a court setting,” said Diane Ala’i, the Community’s representative to the UN in Geneva.“For a long time, the seven were also denied access to lawyers. When they were allowed contact, it lasted barely an hour before their so-called trial began.

“Detainees who have been charged also have the right to seek bail and to be released pending trial. The seven have continually been denied bail, despite numerous requests.

“These are black and white concerns, not subject to interpretation,” said Ms Ala’i.

She added that there were reports of a “menacing presence” of government intelligence agents throughout the trial. “The whole event amounted to a complete mockery of justice, something that has become increasingly common in Iran today,” she said.

As of this writing, the status of the seven remains uncertain. Reports indicate that the June proceedings found the seven innocent of the charges relating to “tarnishing” Iran’s reputation internationally and also of “spreading corruption on earth.” In September, word came that a court of appeal had overturned the verdicts on those charges that relate to espionage.

Global Day of Action

The opening date of the concluding trial sessions on 12 June coincided with both the anniversary of the much contested 2009 presidential election and the observance of a “global day of action” established by a coalition of human rights groups known as United4Iran to protest the repressive measures taken by the Iranian government to stifle dissent.

In more than 80 cities around the world, people took to the streets on 12 June to call for an end to human rights abuses in Iran.

In South Africa, buses carried images of Iranian prisoners of conscience as part of the campaign. “This is not about party politics or calls for punitive action,” said one campaigner in Johannesburg, “this is a principled call to respect the human rights of every person.”

In many cities, demonstrators specifically mentioned the unjust imprisonment of the seven Bahá’í leaders.

In Berlin, Germany, a group erected a replica prison cell at the city’s historic Brandenburg Gate. A display depicting the seven Bahá’í leaders read: “Ideals cannot be locked up. But people with ideals can be. In Iran, these people need your help.”

“For more than two years the seven Bahá’í leaders have been under arrest without justification,” said a supporter in Germany. “They are imprisoned only because they are Bahá’ís. Today it is the Bahá’ís. Tomorrow it could happen to the Sunnis, Jews, Christians or other minorities.”

In Brazil, campaigners carrying masks depicting Iran’s seven Bahá’í leaders gathered in front of the Brazilian National Congress to call for their release.

Congressman Mr. Luiz Couto — a former President of the Commission of Human Rights and Minorities — told the gathering that a person’s faith is an intrinsic human right, necessary for the development of an individual and his contribution to society.