Two teachers face long prison sentences for educating Baha’is, who are banned from pursuing further education in Iran. After repeated harassment and intimidation, married couple Azita Rafizadeh and Peyman Kushak-Baghi have been convicted for their involvement with the Baha’i Open University (BIHE). Rafizadeh recently received a summons notice to begin her sentence. IranWire talked to the teacher, who will be forced to leave her six-year-old son behind, about the incidents that led to the couple’s convictions.
What is the latest news on your case?
Recently, the Moral Security Police contacted my bondsman and asked him to go to their headquarters. The bondsman asked for a written summons. A few days later, he received orders to present himself at a specified address on Thursday, October 8 and bring the convict he was representing with him. When he arrived, authorities angrily asked him why the convict had not accompanied him, and threatened to confiscate his collateral money and throw him in jail. He was then given a summons demanding that he present me to the police on the morning of October 10. I just hoped they would grant us a few more days so I could prepare my son Bashir for my absence.
What is the background of the case? How did it all start?
It started on May 22, 2011, when security forces raided our home. They turned it upside down and seized every religious item there, as well as books, pictures on the wall, posters, booklets, CDs, the laptop and the desktop computers. They even seized unrelated items, like some cash and our checkbooks, and took them away after recording them on a list.
Did they have a warrant?
Yes. The warrant was issued in my name and that of my husband’s.
Did they arrest you on the same day?
No, they did not arrest us on that day, but they told us that we should expect a call and questioning from the Intelligence Bureau. They called two days later and asked us to present ourselves. They threatened that if we did not, they would come to get us. Since at the time our son was only one and a half years old, we arranged to go separately. Each interrogation took a few hours and we were allowed to return home.
What did they ask you about?
About our connections to BIHE and our part in it. They called about a month later. At the time I was outside Iran. They protested to my husband as to why they had not been informed that I was going abroad, and told him to come with me to the Intelligence Bureau when I returned. But since they did not contact us again, we did not take it seriously — until March 2013, when we received a written summons saying that we must present ourselves at Evin’s prosecutor’s office so that they could inform us of the charges against us. As they were reading the charges, we understood that if we pledged to stop working with BIHE, our case would be closed and we would not be prosecuted. Otherwise, we would be released on bail.
Did you sign a pledge?
No. During our conversations and questioning, we realized that by getting these pledges from the teachers, they aimed to force activists [working] for the education of the Baha’i to call it quits. My husband and I did not pledge, and stated that no authority had declared BIHE to be illegal. We told them that there were no other facilities for the education of Baha’i students, who cannot study at the universities, and that we had done nothing illegal. That day they released us on a bail of 50 million tomans [close to US$17,000] each.
Was the Baha’i University functioning normally at the time?
Yes. Despite the fact that authorities had arrested the university’s officials and had created an atmosphere of terror and anxiety, the university continued its activities and the Baha’i students continued their studies. But they summoned students as well and threatened them to make them give up their studies at the university.
When were you tried and what were the charges?
My husband and I received our summons at different times and appeared at court separately. My trial was held in June 2014 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Moghiseh. Peyman’s trial took place at the same court in May 2015. We were both charged with membership to the illegal and heretic Baha’i sect with the intent to act against national security through our activities with the illegal institution the BIHE. I was sentenced to four years in prison and my husband to five.
Have you taken any action to appeal the verdicts?
Yes. The appeals court upheld both verdicts, mine in February 2015 and Peyman’s in October. The verdicts are now due to be enforced. A few days ago they decided to bring forward the date that I must start serving my time. It might happen to Peyman, too, in which case our son would be left alone.
How old is your son?
Five years and nine months.
Do you know which prison you are going to?
As far as I know, female Baha’i prisoners are sent to Evin and men are sent to Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj.
If you both go to prison, who is going to take care of your son?
Our parents are old and cannot take care of him, so we are very worried about Bashir’s future.
Have you tried to find out if you can serve your prison terms at different times?
Yes. A few months ago I went to the assistant prosecutor and told him about our situation. I told him that without us, our child would be without a guardian and we would prefer if our verdicts are not carried out at the same time. I told him that the absence of both parents would be a hard blow to the child and we hope to spare our son such a difficult situation. I asked if the law provided an opening for a legal appeal. The assistant prosecutor answered that there are no legal provisions for such an appeal unless we receive “Islamic compassion”. So we have no hope that our sentences will be carried out at different times.
We have no animosity toward anybody, not even those who are carrying out the verdict. We only wish for a prosperous country with an educated and informed youth so they can work for the betterment of their country regardless of religion and creed. I hope that everybody, including your readers, will pray for our family, especially for Bashir, so that he can remain healthy and happy without feeling a grudge against anybody —so that he can withstand these years of separation with a love for all Iranians in his heart.
To read more about Baha’is and the campaign to secure their rights visit NotACrime and follow #NotACrime