Everything Azita Rafizadeh said ended with this question: “What will happen to Bashir if they take Peyman away to serve his sentence?” Her trembling voice showed the deep anxiety of a mother whose young child was going to be left alone. We agreed to talk, but decided not to publish anything until she gives me the go-ahead.
Back then, Azita was under the impression that if the media did not publish news about her prison sentence, which had been issued in June 2014, she would have a chance to spend more time with her son Bashir, who was 5.
The final verdict against Azita was issued by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court, who sentenced her to four years in prison for teaching at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university run by members of Iran’s Baha’i minority, who are not allowed to pursue higher education in Iran.
Azita had yet to receive a summons to prison, and she was hopeful that silence might lead to a delay in enforcing the sentence so she could arrange something for Bashir. “Any moment that I can spend with Bashir is priceless,” she told me.
But last year, on October 25, three days after our Skype conversation, I received a message from Azita’s husband, Peyman Kushak Baghi. “Today they took Azita to prison,” the message said.
Peyman himself had been sentenced to five years in prison for the same offence as his wife, but had yet to be ordered to prison.
“How is Bashir? Is he restless?” I asked, but immediately recognized that my question was pointless. What can you expect from a child that age?
No “Islamic Compassion”
“Bashir is five years and nine months old,” Azita had told me. “We went to Mr. Khoda-Bakhshi, the deputy prosecutor, and told him that that our son had no guardian expect his father and I. We asked him to find a way so that we did not have to serve our sentences at the same time. Even if one parent is absent and in prison, it can do irreparable damage to a child, let alone if both of them are in prison and the child has no other guardian. Our parents are old and broken-down. They live in a provincial town and cannot take care of Bashir. The deputy prosecutor told us that there was no legal recourse unless we were favored with ‘Islamic compassion.’”
But they were not favored by Islamic compassion. On February 28, when Peyman and Bashir went to Evin Prison to visit Azita, Peyman was unexpectedly arrested by three plainclothes agents before reaching the visiting hall, and was taken to prison to start his five-year sentence.
About his arrest, a relative told Radio Zamaneh,
“Peyman was arrested without prior notice or summons. They did not even allow him to properly bid farewell to his wife. Officers separated him from his son, and without proper attire they took him to an unknown location. Previously, on numerous occasions after Azita’s imprisonment, Peyman contacted the deputy prosecutor and the head of the Office of Enforcement, requesting to be notified prior to his arrest. This request was due to the psychological condition as well as the young age of his son, and because he had no one to look after his son during his sentence. If notified, he would have some time to prepare his son for the absence of both parents. The Deputy Prosecutor assured him that at this moment they had nothing to do with him, but on Sunday, he was unexpectedly arrested in the presence of his son and before entering the visiting room.”
Teaching as “Activity against National Security”
Both Azita and Peyman were sentenced purely for their academic activities. Azita started working with BIHE in 2002 as a computer engineering instructor. Prior to that, she had received her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from BIHE, and her master’s degree in the same subject from India’s University of Pune. Peyman also has a degree in computer engineering, and taught mathematics and computer engineering at BIHE.
Their ordeal began on May 22, 2011 when agents of the Intelligence Ministry raided the homes of BIHE teachers. The agents confiscated all textbooks and teaching materials in Azita and Peyman’s home, and the next day they received a summons to appear at Evin’s Prosecutor’s Office for interrogation. They were charged with “activities against national security by membership in the Baha’i educational and scientific institution.”
“In the course of the interrogation I learned that if I pledged to stop teaching at BIHE, they would stop the prosecution and I could return to my normal life, but I found it difficult to do so,” Azita told me. “Their ultimate aim was to prevent the activities of the Baha’i university, but I believe that education is the inalienable right of Baha’i students, who are prevented from enrolling in any university in Iran. In any case, on that day they released us on bail.”
At that time, Bashir was 17 months old and the couple could have easily left Iran before any verdict was issued, but they decided to stay and until the last moments of their freedom they continued teaching at BIHE because they believed that they were not doing anything illegal.
In May and June of 2015, they were tried individually at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court on charges of “activities against national security” for teaching at BIHE. Judge Moghiseh sentenced Azita to four years and Peyman to five years in prison. They appealed the ruling, but in October 2015, the appeals court upheld the verdict.
Their biggest worry was what would happen to Bashir if they were to start serving their sentences at the same time. In the end, Bashir was entrusted to the care of a family that had volunteered to foster him. Now Bashir visits his mother and father in prison on alternate weeks.
“The day I presented myself at prison to start my sentence, I asked the officials to call Peyman because it was very important to say goodbye to Bashir and prepare him,” Azita said. “Peyman himself talked with the prosecutor’s representative about this many times.”
On March 8, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, a group of female inmates at Evin Prison wrote a letter to the chief of Iranian Judiciary in which they asked him to take action to alleviate the situation of Azita and her family. They reminded him that after Baha’i institutions were closed down, Hojatoleslam Dari Najafabadi, who was Iran’s chief prosecutor at the time, issued a statement in which he officially announced that Baha’is have the same rights as other Iranians, and that this statement was broadcast by the state-run radio and TV. “But this announcement was never turned into practice,” the letter said. “We plead with you to repeal the verdict against this young couple or at least suspend the sentence of one of them so they can take care of their child.”
This was not the only voice raised in protest against the treatment of this Baha’i family. A short while later, a group of Muslim Iranians signed a petition expressing their shame and asked for the couple’s release.
Not the Only Baha’i Couple in Prison
Azita and Peyman are not the only Baha’i couple who are spending spring in prison. At this moment, Adel Naeimi is serving a sentence of 11 years at Rajaei Shahr Prison. His wife Elham Farahani is serving a sentence of four years at Evin, and their son Shamim Naeimi is next to his father at Rajaei Shahr serving a three-year sentence.
Another Baha’i couple, Iman Rashidi and Shabnam Motamed, also spent the Iranian New Year in prison. On March 19, 2015 they were transferred to Yazd prison in central Iran on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “activities against national security.” Iman was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, and his wife Shabnam to two years.
Fariborz Baghi and his wife Nategheh Naeimi, another Baha’i couple, are serving a two-year sentence in prison.