Human Rights

Trial of seven Baha'i leaders in Iran begins; international condemnation follows

GENEVA - After several postponements last year, the trial of seven Iranian Bahá'í leaders began in January 2010 - an event that was immediately condemned by governments and human rights groups and activists outside Iran.

Arrested in 2008 and held in Evin prison for nearly two years, the seven leaders were transported to Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on 12 January 2010. There, in a closed courtroom, prosecutors formally read the charges against them. The seven categorically denied all the accusations and, after the hearing, they were sent back to prison.

The fate of the seven remains uncertain. They were summoned to court again on 7 February. That session, also closed, lasted about an hour and apparently focused on procedural issues. On 12 April, they were called to court for a third session, but that was cut short after the seven objected to the improper presence of a television crew and other non-judicial officials in what was ostensibly a closed court proceeding. As of this writing, no date for continuance has been set.

The seven are Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm. They were responsible for tending to the spiritual and social needs of Iran's 300,000 Bahá'ís. Formal Bahá'í institutions in Iran were dissolved in 1983.

According to the government-sponsored news media, the actual charges read against the seven in their January court appearance were: espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth.

The closed nature of the trial, along with other irregularities, were widely condemned in the days and weeks after the first session.

Shirin Ebadi speaks

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi called for the immediate release and ultimate acquittal of the seven.

"If justice is to be carried out and an impartial judge [would] investigate the charges leveled against my clients, the only verdict that could be reached is that of acquittal," said Mrs. Ebadi, who, along with three other colleagues, officially represents the seven. Ms. Ebadi has been outside Iran since the June 2009 presidential election and the turmoil that followed.

Mrs. Ebadi said she had carefully read the dossier of charges against them and "found in it no cause or evidence to sustain the criminal charges upheld by the prosecutor." Her comments came in a posting on WashingtonTV, a Web-based news service in the United States.

Others also expressed concerns about the fairness of the trial, calling for it to be open and held in accordance with international legal standards. Governments, human rights organizations, and prominent individuals in the European Union, the United States, Brazil, India, and Canada all issued strong statements of concern.

The European Union said in a statement that it "expresses its serious concern about the start today of the trial against seven Bahá'í leaders in Iran, as the charges against them appear to be motivated by their belonging to a minority faith."

In Brazil, Luiz Couto, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Federal Chamber of Deputies, said in a letter to the Iranian ambassador to Brazil that it appears the "trial is not transparent and public," and that any closed trial would violate the right to a full and fair defense.

"We consider the freedom of religion and belief - that of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Bahá'ís, and all other religious expressions - a fundamental human right for democracy, both in the East and West," said Congressman Couto.

Many extended their expression of concern to the entire Iranian Bahá'í community, stating that the trial of the seven leaders reflects just one aspect of an "ongoing repression."

For example, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Iranian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LDDHI) issued a press release on 11 February calling on the Iranian authorities to "to immediately cease all kinds of intimidation and harassment against the Bahá'í community and release all persons arbitrarily detained.

"Iran should, under all circumstances, respect the international standards related to the right to a fair trial," said the FIDH and LDDHI.

Continuing arrests

Such expressions of concern accompanied new arrests of Iranian Bahá'ís in January and February. On 3 January, 13 Bahá'ís were arrested and ten of them were later falsely charged with helping to organize the Ashura demonstrations in late December. According to the government-sponsored news media, some of those arrested were accused of possessing "arms and ammunition," implying that they were to be used against the government - a charge which was immediately rejected as false by the Bahá'í International Community.

Among the 13 arrested on 3 January were relatives of two of the imprisoned leaders, including Negar Sabet, daughter of Mahvash Sabet; Leva Khanjani, granddaughter of Jamaloddin Khanjani; and her husband, Babak Mobasher. Others arrested were Jinous Sobhani, former secretary of Mrs. Shirin Ebadi, and her husband Artin Ghazanfari; Mehran Rowhani and Farid Rowhani, who are brothers; Nasim Beiglari; Payam Fanaian; Nikav Hoveydaie and his wife, Mona Misaghi; and Ebrahim Shadmehr and his son, Zavosh Shadmehr.

On 30 Janauary, one of those ten - Payam Fanaian - was among 16 individuals put on trial in Tehran for allegedly participating in the Ashura demonstrations. Aspects of that trial were broadcast on television, featuring confessions that had clearly been coerced.

In a statement issued at the time, the Bahá'í International Community said: "It is well known that such confessions are obtained while prisoners are under extreme duress, often after being exposed to such appalling tactics as food and sleep deprivation, fake executions, threats against their families, and worse. Rather than accepting responsibility for the turmoil in the country, the Iranian government organizes such show trials in order to lay the blame on innocent citizens and others."

In late March, it was learned that Mr. Fanaian had been sentenced to six years in prison. Most of the other Bahá'ís arrested on 3 January had been released on bail, and were awaiting trial on unspecified charges.

Revolving-door arrests of Bahá'ís around the country continue. In March, some 14 Bahá'í were arrested, five in the city of Marvdasht, four in Mashhad, and the others in Semnan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kermanshah, and Sari. Most of the detentions followed the familiar pattern of agents of the Ministry of Intelligence showing up at the homes of Bahá'ís, searching the premises and confiscating items such as computers and books, then arresting the residents.

In all, more than 50 Bahá'ís have been arrested since the beginning of 2010. As this article was written, there were 45 Bahá'ís in prison, all because of their religious beliefs.