Human Rights

United Nations again expresses concern over human rights in Iran; a Baha'i prisoner dies of unknown causes

UNITED NATIONS — For the 18th time since 1985, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution expressing “serious concern” over the human rights situation in Iran, also making specific mention of the ongoing persecution of the Bahá'í community there.

The resolution passed on 16 December 2005, a few days before news emerged from Iran that a Bahá'í who had been wrongly jailed for 10 years died of unknown causes in his prison cell.

Mr. Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, 59, was held in a government prison in Yazd under harsh physical conditions at the time of his death, which occurred on 15 December 2005 and became known on 19 December 2005.

Mr. Mahrami's death comes amidst ominous signs that a new wave of persecutions of Bahá'ís has begun. This year so far, at least 59 Bahá'ís have been arrested, detained or imprisoned, a figure up sharply from the last several years.

As well, Bahá'í students continue to be deprived of access to higher education — a fact which has begun to draw the notice of educators around the world. In December, for example, some 15 top French academics published a letter in Le Monde expressing concern about Iran 's Bahá'í youth.

The UN resolution, which had been put forward by Canada and co-sponsored by 46 countries including Australia, the European Union, and the United States, passed by a vote of 75 to 50. It took note of the increasing arrests and other forms of discrimination against Iranian Bahá'ís — including the denial of access to higher education.

Specifically, the resolution noted the “escalation and increased frequency of discrimination and other human rights violations against the Bahá'í[s], including cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, the denial of freedom of religion or of publicly carrying out communal affairs, the disregard of property rights, the destruction of sites of religious importance, the suspension of social, educational and community-related activities and the denial of access to higher education, employment, pensions, adequate housing and other benefits....”

Among other things, the UN General Assembly called on Iran to “eliminate, in law or in practice, all forms of discrimination based on religious, ethnic or linguistic grounds, and other human rights violations against minorities, including Arabs, Kurds, Baluchi, Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims and the Bahá'í[s]....”

The resolution also encourages various agencies of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to continue to work to improve the human rights situation in Iran , and at the same time it calls on the government of Iran to cooperate with these agencies.

Ms. Bani Dugal , principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, said the worldwide Bahá'í community is thankful for the support of the international community in expressing its concern about human rights in Iran .

“It has been a year when human rights violations against Bahá'ís and other groups in Iran have strikingly worsened, and the scrutiny and support of the international community remains virtually the only tool for the protection of innocent people in Iran ,” said Ms. Dugal.

“A very difficult year...”

“For Bahá'ís, who are persecuted solely for their religious beliefs, it has been a very difficult year in Iran ,” added Ms. Dugal.

“The worldwide Bahá'í community mourns deeply the passing of Mr. Mahrami, who was unjustly held for a decade on trumped-up charges that manifestly violated his right to freedom of religion and belief,” said Ms. Dugal.

Arrested in 1995 in Yazd on charges of apostasy, Mr. Mahrami was initially sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment after an international outcry and widespread media attention.

“While the cause of his death is not known, Mr. Mahrami had no known health concerns,” said Ms. Dugal.

“We also know that Mr. Mahrami was forced to perform arduous physical labor and that he had received death threats on a number of occasions.

“In this light, there should be no doubt that the Iranian authorities bear manifest responsibility for the death of this innocent man, whose only crime was his belief in the Bahá'í Faith,” said Ms. Dugal.

Born in 1946, Mr. Mahrami served in the civil service but at the time of his arrest was making a living installing venetian blinds, having been summarily fired from his job like thousands of other Bahá'ís in the years following the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Although Iranian officials have asserted that Mr. Mahrami was guilty of spying for Israel , court records clearly indicate that he was tried and sentenced solely on the charge of being an “apostate,” a crime which is punishable by death under traditional Islamic law.

Although Mr. Mahrami was a lifelong Bahá'í, the apostasy charge apparently came about because a civil service colleague, in an effort to prevent Mr. Mahrami from losing his job, submitted to a newspaper an article stating that he had converted to Islam.

When it later became clear to Iranian authorities that Mr. Mahrami remained a member of the Bahá'í community, they arrested him and charged him with apostasy for allegedly converting from Islam to the Bahá'í Faith. On 2 January 1996, he was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court , a conviction that was later upheld by the Iranian Supreme Court.

The death sentence against Mr. Mahrami stirred an international outcry. The European Parliament, for example, passed a resolution on human rights abuses in Iran , making reference to Mr. Mahrami's case. The governments of Australia , Brazil , Canada , France , Germany , the United Kingdom , and the United States also registered objections.

There was also significant media coverage of the case, in Le Monde and Liberation in France , as well as reports by the BBC, Reuters, and Agence France Presse.

Although the authorities did not publicly bow to international pressure calling for Mr. Mahrami's release, in December 1999 they took the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad to declare an amnesty and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

Regarding the increase in arrests, Ms. Dugal said that the majority of those Bahá'ís who have been arrested have been released, apparently part of a campaign of “revolving door” arrests designed to intimidate Iranian Bahá'ís. As of this writing, two Bahá'ís remain in prison in Iran .

Ms. Dugal said that Bahá'ís also face a wide and growing range of severely oppressive measures, including continued restrictions on religious assembly, the confiscation and destruction of holy sites, and various economic restrictions.

Appeal by Nobel laureates

On 14 December 2005, 15 top French intellectuals and scientists — including three Nobel prize winners — published an open letter in the French newspaper Le Monde calling on the Iranian government to open the doors of its universities to Bahá'ís.

“Every human has a right to know, no matter his origins,” they wrote. “We support these youth who thirst for knowledge. We are asking the Iranian government to welcome, in every university of the country, all the youth who have successfully passed the entrance exam, without exception—so that the cultural cleansing may finally stop.”

The letter was signed by, among others, Rosine Haguenauer, director of research at CNRS [National Center of Scientific Research] in biology; Professor Jean-Pierre Vernant, historian, professor at Collège au France; Pascal Lederer, director of research at CNRS, physicist; Professor Pierre Gilles De Gennes, professor at Collège de France, Nobel Prize in physics; Miguel Angel Estrella, pianist, ambassador to UNESCO; Professor Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, professor at Collège au France, Nobel Prize in physics; and Professor François Jacob, professor at Collège au France, Nobel Prize in medicine.

Similarly, in November, the President of Stanford University in the United States, wrote an open letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and various other UN officials, including the Ambassador from Iran to the UN, expressing concern over the exclusion of Iranian Bahá'ís from higher education in Iran.

“Such a denial of education to well-qualified students whose only offence is their affiliation with a peaceful, tolerant, and apolitical religion is unacceptable and in direct violation of internationally accepted human rights standards as listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” wrote Stanford President John L. Hennessy in a letter dated 20 November 2005.