By Rezvanollah Tavakkoli
Rezvanollah Tavakkoli is a Baha’i living in Virginia and is the brother of Behrouz Tavakkoli, who is serving a 20-year sentence as a prisoner of conscience in Iran.
My brother Behrouz and six other members of the Yaran are serving the longest prison sentence of any prisoners of conscience in Iran. On May 14, it will be the sixth anniversary of their arrest and imprisonment.
The Yaran, which translates to “friends,” was a committee of the Baha’i community of Iran. They took care of basic community affairs for a minority population that is unrecognized as citizens of Iran. Their leadership was a source of inspiration for Baha’is in Iran, and the basic support they offered by carrying out administrative matters related to Baha’i marriages, otherwise unrecognized by the state, and assisting with Baha’i funerals were sorely needed supports for a community struggling under an oppressive regime.
My brother had been arrested once before, two years before the orchestrated arrests and imprisonments of the Yaran. At that time, Behrouz had traveled to visit Baha’i study groups in the city of Mashhad, in northeast Iran. The visits were on behalf of the Yaran, and as soon as he arrived at the bus terminal in Mashhad, he was arrested. He underwent many months of grueling interrogations, during which he was required to sit on the floor hours on end answering questions in writing. In the process, one of his legs, which he had broken as a child, was further damaged, and he continues to suffer from that pain. Following these interrogations, Behrouz was transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran. He was eventually released and continued to serve the Baha’i community before this last arrest and sentencing to 20 years of imprisonment in 2008.
He and the other members of the Yaran were charged with espionage and acting against national security among other trumped up charges – this notwithstanding the fact that the Baha’is are completely opposed to violence and do not seek political office or power. The Yaran were also charged with “corruption on earth,” a charge that is often leveled against religious minorities and others with whom the theocratic government disagrees.
As the largest minority religion in Iran, the Baha’i Faith has been subject to persecution since its inception in Persia in the 19th century, and the Iranian government’s oppression of its Baha’i community has only become more systematized since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, Baha’is are denied jobs and Baha’i youth are barred from higher education, while the community at large continues to face the alienating effects of vilification in mass media, harassment in school, the confiscation of property, as well as arbitrary arrests.
As a Baha’i, my brother is not considered a legal person with rights. Baha’is are not recognized under the Iranian Constitution, so Behrouz, like all Baha’is, has no protection under the law, either from crimes committed against him by other citizens or by unjust persecution at the hands of the government.
Besides Behrouz, many other members of my family have experienced arrests and interrogation. In the 1980s, before we left Iran, my wife, son and daughter were detained in prison in an attempt to find me, and I was arrested and interrogated soon after. My brother Firouz was also arrested and taken to prison, as was his wife, who was detained in prison for many months. My other brother, Amin, was also tortured in prison.
Under these circumstances, one wonders why anyone would choose to identify as a Baha’i in Iran. As a matter of principle, Baha’is do not deny or misrepresent their religion. This Baha’i identity does not represent for us a separation from our fellow Iranians, or from any ethnic or religious group. On the contrary, our Baha’i identity represents a belief in the central tenet of the Faith: that we are all one human family, and that our diversity and freedom of thought should be a source of joy and unity, not a cause for oppression and estrangement.
It is in this spirit of love and fellowship that I ask that you remember Behrouz, the Yaran, and all prisoners of conscience who suffer for their belief in peace and justice. Not only on May 14, but at all moments in life, we must labor to protect the human rights of all in Iran and worldwide.
To read the Farsi version of this article, click here.