Translation by Iran Press Watch
By: Kian Sabeti
June 29, 2014
In early 2008 in Mashhad – a city in the northeast of Iran – while agents of the Ministry of Intelligence were raiding the home of one of the members of the “Khadimeen”- a local Baha’i committee serving community needs and affairs- they found papers indicating that a Baha’i who had converted to Islam right after the revolution had declared himself a Baha’i again later in life. He was a resident of the small city of Boshruyeh in the Ferdows area. After his death, he was buried according to Baha’i burial laws with the consent of his family.
In the early dawn of May 16, 2008, six Baha’i citizens who had been leading the affairs of the Baha’i community of Iran were arrested at their residences by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. These six, along with one other who had been incarcerated earlier in Mashhad, are known to Baha’is as Yaran-e Iran (Friends of Iran). The names of these seven members are:
Behrooz Tavakoli – Afif Naimi – Jamaluddin Khanjani – Saeid Rezaie – Fariba Kamalabadi – Vahid Tizfahm and Mahvash Sabet (1).
These Baha’i citizens were denied representation in courts for over a year before Shirin Ebadi- a prominent lawyer and a Noble Peace Prize Winner- agreed to take their case. Her courageous act evoked the rage of the religious hardliners in Iran, as Baha’is had been deprived of the right to legal representation previously. Ms. Ebadi was accused of being a Baha’i in Iranian media and her home and office were raided many times bygovernment agents and thugs. Shortly thereafter, she left Iran and transferred the case to Mr. Abdul-Fattah Soltani and associates, another law firm in Iran.
On February 14, 2009, the office of the Attorney General of Tehran charged those seven Baha’i citizens with criminal wrongdoing, accusing them of “espionage, propaganda against the regime, establishment of a group with the intention of acting against national security and planning to act against the security of the country”. After an increase in worldwide protests against the arrests of these Baha’i leaders, on February 24th of the same year a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice announced that their trial would start in a week. Despite this claim, the first court session was not held until January 11, 2010 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran with Justice Mohammad Moghiseh as presiding judge (2). The next session was held on February 8, 2010, and after two postponements, the third one was finally held in May of 2010 without the presence of the families of the defendants, but with many agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and cameramen in attendance. The very last trial sessions of the Yaran in Revolutionary Court of Tehran occurred over three days, from June 13th to June 15th of the same year.
On August 6th, 2010, Justice Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding judge of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, sentenced each of these seven Baha’i citizens to 20 year terms, accusing them of spying for Israel, waging war against God and acting against national security. This ruling was issued although the defendants did not accept any of the charges and their defending lawyers could not find any valid documents or any evidence whatsoever to support the verdict.
On September 14th, the Appeals Court overturned the espionage charges and reduced the sentences to 10 years each, which was conveyed to the defendants’ lawyers orally. Not long after, the Attorney General appealed the Appeals Court ruling and increased the sentences back to 20 years each.
During the past six years, the lawyers of these seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders have steadfastly argued that they have not found a single shred of evidence indicative of their spying or action against the national security, and that they were perplexed by the court’s logic in support of these sentences. One of the interesting points of this case was that a government website published the report of one of the court sessions the night before it was held, falsely claiming that one of the Baha’i citizens had confessed to his guilt and accepted the charges!
Although during all these years many individuals as well as international organizations and human rights groups have demanded that the Government of Iran reconsider the case of these Baha’i leaders, Iranian officials have consistently rejected these international requests, and have incarcerated these seven Baha’i citizens as prisoners of conscience with minimal rights at the notorious Evin and Rajaishahr prisons.
Iranian media reported May 16, 2008 as the date of the arrest of Baha’i leaders; however, what has received far less attention is the fact that Ms. Mahvash Sabet was arrested in March of 2008, which could be considered as a prelude to the arrest of the remaining Yaran-e Iran. We will review how Mahvash Sabet was arrested in more detail, but, before that, let’s get to know more about who the Yaran-e Iran are.
Who Are The Yaran-e Iran?
Baha’i communities in each city and country conduct their affairs by freely electing 9 members to serve on a council, with secret ballots and without electioneering. These councils are known to Baha’is as Baha’i Spiritual Assemblies. After the victory of the Islamic Republic and establishment of the new regime in Iran, all of the members of the Baha’i council of the country, called the National Spiritual Assembly, were kidnapped and murdered. The next group of elected members were also arrested and executed. Subsequently, a third National Assembly was elected.
On August 25, 1983, in a statement, the residing Attorney General declared all Baha’i administration in Iran to be illegal. Eight days later, on September 2nd, in a gesture of good will and in accordance with their law of obedience to the government, the Baha’i community dismantled all the assemblies throughout Iran; instead, they formed groups of three in cities and villages called Khadimeen (“Servants”), and on the national level named the Yaran-e Iran to address the immediate needs of the community such as births, marriages, divorces, burial ceremonies and other services.
On September 23, 1987, three members of the Yaran-e Iran, Mr. Jamaluddin Khanjani, Mr. Hasan Mahboobi and Mr. Changeez Fanaeyan, along with two other Baha’i citizens, were arrested. After spending 59 days in jail, they were released on November 11th. One of the two Baha’is arrested with the Yaran, Mr. Bahman Samandari, was jailed and later executed in March of 1991. Authorities announced that his incarceration and execution was in connection to the 1987 case. Mr. Hasan Mahboobi was killed in a hit-and-run accident as he was heading to a meeting of the Yaran in August 1992. After the release of the Yaran-e Iran until their next arrest in May 2008, the Iranian government was in close contact with them and had complete and detailed knowledge of all Baha’i activities. On that basis Baha’is were able to refute the charges of “Illegal activities” or “illegal organization” against the security of the nation.
With pressure mounting on Baha’i citizens, the activities of the Yaran-e Iran intensified. Detentions and arrests of Baha’i citizens in different cities, refusal to admit Baha’i students to higher educational institutions, banning Baha’i businesses and merchants and not allowing Baha’is employment were among the issues the Yaran increasingly had to deal with. Faced with this pressure and limitations imposed on the community, these Baha’i leaders on one hand had to generate opportunities for useful productivity for the talents and creativity of the Baha’is, and on the other hand, had to find practical solutions to rectify the violated rights of Baha’is in Iran.
This increase in the activities of the Yaran-e Iran mandated the addition of more members; as a result, in 2007 the number of members reached seven. Behrooz Tavakoli – Afif Naimi – Jamaluddin Khanjani – Saeid Rezaie – Fariba Kamal Abadi – Vahid Tizfahm and Mahvash Sabet were the last leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran, and they currently are serving 20 year prison terms. After their arrest, the responsibility of leading the community was put on the shoulders of all Baha’is as individuals.
Detention of Mahvash Sabet
In early 2008 in Mashhad – a city in the northeast of Iran – while agents of the Ministry of Intelligence were raiding the home of one of the members of the Khadimeen – a local Baha’i committee serving community needs and affairs – they found papers indicating that a Baha’i who had converted to Islam just after the revolution had declared himself a Baha’i again later in life. He was a resident of the small city of Boshruyeh in district of Ferdows (3), and after his passing was buried according to Baha’i burial laws with the consent of his family. It is noteworthy to know that in the early years of the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, the government ordered the expulsion of all Baha’i citizens from their government and semi-government jobs and positions unless they denounced Baha’i Faith and converted to Islam. Some Baha’is converted to Islam to keep their jobs; however, many of them returned to the Baha’i Faith after retirement.
The contents of the letter found by the Ministry of Intelligence was in fact a consultation of the Khademeen of Mashhad with the Yaran-e Iran regarding the burial of this individual. According to the suggestion of the Yaran-e Iran reflected in that letter, the Baha’i burial of the deceased was approved inasmuch as he had declared his belief in the Baha’i Faith before his passing, and his family had wished for a Baha’i burial. This letter was signed by Ms. Mahvash Sabet on behalf of the Yaran-e Iran.
Considering this burial to be illegal, the Bureau of Intelligence of Mashhad summoned Mahvash Sabet as a responsible party to answer to the questions of the Information Office of the Bureau. Of course it should be mentioned that, earlier in August of 2005, the same Bureau had arrested Mr. Behrooz Tavakoli along with Ms. Fariba Kamalabadi, both members of the Yaran-e Iran”, who had come to visit some Baha’i friends as they arrived at the bus terminal of Mashhad. These two Baha’i citizens were transferred to Tehran after spending 40 days in solitary confinement at the Bureau of Intelligence of Mashhad. Fariba Kamalabadi was released after 19 days and Behrooz Tavakoli after three months from the infamous Evin prison.
Mahvash Sabet, however, reported to the Bureau of Intelligence of Mashhad on March 5, 2008 to clarify the issue. She was immediately arrested and transferred to Tehran after a while. Since her arrest in Mashhad 74 months ago, no one knows what conversation took place between Mahvash and her interrogators regarding the burial issue in Mashhad. Why was she who had been summoned to answer some questions arrested and sent to prison in Tehran? Were the arrests of the remaining members of the Yaran-e Iran pre-planned? Was the arrest of Mavash Sabet just a prelude to the incarceration of the others in the following two months? Will the relationship between the arrest of Mahvash Sabet in March 2008 and the other six members of Baha’i community leaders on May 16, 2008 possibly become clear in the future?
1. Profiles of the Yaran: http://news.bahai.org/human-rights/iran/yaran-special-report/profiles
2. Here is a description of the activities of Judge Moghiseh: http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/04/mohammad-mostafaee-judge-moghiseh-has-violated-many-suspects-rights/
3. Boshruyeh is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boshruyeh