Trial of Iranian Baha’i leadership: An Open Letter to Ayatollah Dorri-Najafabadi

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Your Excellency, Ayatollah Dorri-Najafabadi, Iran’s Prosecutor-General,

Acting on deep concern for the lives of the seven Iranian Baha’i leaders whose lives are in imminent danger, we write you in advance of their imminent trial in Tehran.  We urge you to dismiss the charges against these seven citizens for the following reasons.

On February 11, 2009, Hassan Haddad, the deputy Prosecutor-General, stated in an interview: “The charges against the seven accused of engaging in the activities of the outlawed Baha’i community were assessed by Branch One of the Judiciary branch of the [Ministry of Intelligence and] Security [known as VEVAK—the successor to SAVAK], and in view of the deliberation in support of these charges, their case with a request for prosecution will be sent to the Revolutionary Court next week for final adjudication.” Source: Iran Press Watch, online at http://www.iranpresswatch.org/2009/02/featuretrial-of-seven-bahai-leaders.

Your Excellency, you also have enumerated the charges against the accused, which include “espionage on behalf of Israel,” “insult to the sacredness [of Islam],” and “propaganda against the regime.”  As you well know, these charges can carry the death penalty.  As to the charges of “espionage for Israel, desecrating religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic, you have explained the state’s position, in part, as follows:

There is irrefutable evidence that adherents of the Baha’i sect are in close contact with the enemies of the Iranian nation and have strong links to the Zionist regime. … Baha’i organizations are illegal and their connections to Israel and their enmity toward Islam and the Islamic system are absolutely certain and their threat against the national security is a proven fact1.

The accused categorically deny these charges.  To date, not a scintilla of evidence against them has been brought to light.  The seven members of this informal national Baha’i coordinating committee were arrested in March and May of 2008 and have been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, and have been deprived of due process.

At no time during their incarceration have they been given access to their legal counsel, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi.  Since taking on their case, Ms. Ebadi, who has been denied access to her clients’ case files, has been harassed, intimidated, and threatened.  Placed in historical perspective, the prosecution of these Baha’i leaders is the latest major event in a 30-year-long systematic campaign orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran to eliminate the Baha’i community as a viable entity in Iran, the birthplace of the Baha’i Faith.  Documentary evidence exists on this campaign: http://iran.bahai.us/documents.

In the interest of justice, please allow us, the editorial staff of Iran Press Watch, in a spirit of fairness, to offer a brief rebuttal of these charges, one by one:

1. “Espionage for Israel/threat against the national security”:

We appeal to you to consider the following argument:

The charge of spying for Israel is the most ridiculous of all. Since the government has ensured that the Baha’is are systematically excluded from all government employment and have even been expelled from most private businesses, since they have no access to any military or political secrets, just what information could they possibly have that would be of any interest to Israel? What danger to the Iranian state could be posed by these seven individuals whose occupations before they were expelled from their work by the present regime were: a developmental psychologist, two factory owners, an agricultural engineer, a head-teacher, a social worker and a optometrist? How could people who for thirty years have been under the close watch of Iran’s secret service possibly communicate with the state of Israel?2

This line of argument points out the lack of opportunity.  However, even if given the opportunity, no self-respecting Baha’i would ever contravene the fundamental Baha’i religious law of obedience to government.  Iranian Baha’is are loyal Iranians.  As the target of systematic deprivations, however, Iranian Baha’is are naturally critical of their government’s actions towards its own citizens, as the Baha’is constitute Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.

As advocates for the accused, we deny, in the strongest possible terms, the suggestion that Baha’is in Iran have engaged in any subversive activity.  The Baha’i community is not involved in political affairs — this is also a powerful and strongly emphasized fundamental law of the Baha’i Faith.  Their only “crime” is the practice of their religion.

Your Honor is no doubt aware that the seven accused Baha’is members were of a committee that helped attend to the needs of the 300,000 Baha’is in Iran.  That has never been a secret.  The Islamic Republic of Iran knew perfectly well about the existence of this committee long before its members were arrested, just as the government knows perfectly well that these people are not involved in any underhanded activity.

2. “Enmity toward Islam and the Islamic system”:

Your Honor, we respectfully point out to you the irony that Iran’s persecution of the Baha’is tarnishes the fair image of Islam.  We believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran would be well-advised to adopt and pursue a policy of enlightened self-interest—with the interests of Islam’s public image at heart3. Tolerance of the Baha’i community—and restoring their religious, civil and legal rights—will redound to the benefit of the reputation of Islam as practiced in Iran, as a tolerant, fair-minded and just religion.

There’s a further irony in all this—Baha’is are the only non-Muslim religious minority in Iran that fully and firmly believes as a tenet of our Faith in the truth of the prophethood of Muhammad and in the Qur’an as a direct revelation from God, sent down by God for the edification and enlightenment of humankind.  Baha’is have never been “enemies of Islam.”  Rather, Baha’is are “friends of Islam.”

Obversely, some powerful clerics are the avowed “enemies of Baha’is” and have used the state apparatus to subject Baha’is to all kinds of deprivations and indignities.  An entire generation of Baha’is has been barred from university education.  Baha’is cannot hold government positions, cannot serve in the military, are not allowed to be lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, etc., and are even refused business licenses—all in a systematically orchestrated campaign of economic strangulation.  Elderly Baha’is have lost their pensions, have had their financial and property assets seized, and are without even the bare modicum of a social safety net.

The state-run Iranian press regularly vilifies the Baha’is, with incitement to hatred and, implicitly at least, to violence. Social ostracization of Baha’is is the social norm.  Baha’i children in public schools are targets of ridicule by their own teachers, and are demeaned—subjected to heartless humiliation in front of their peers, which, as expected, is all calculated to inflict permanent psychological injury on these innocent schoolchildren.  Entire Baha’i cemeteries have been razed to the ground by bulldozers. Sacred Baha’i holy places and shrines, with profound historic and religious significance, have been destroyed.  And there are horrific stories of torture, execution, and much other maltreatment against Baha’is—all with impunity and with the tacit, if not vocal approval of hardline clerics.

By contrast, Baha’is advocate peace among all nations, religions and races.  Baha’is are strong advocates of interfaith ecumenism and in what scholars call “transconfessional affinity”—and are among the first to defend the rights of Muslims wherever they exist as religious minorities.

3.  “Their connections to Israel”:

This trumped-up charge is without substance, for it is a species of “guilt by association.”  Inferences of collusion with the state of Israel are misleading and must be categorically denied.  The Iranian accusers are invoking the well-known fact that the Baha’i world administrative center is located in Haifa, Israel.  It is a transparent historical fact that the Baha’i Faith was centered in Iran until 1853, when Iranian authorities exiled Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i prophet-founder, who was eventually imprisoned in the prison-city of Acca on the Mediterranean coast under the Ottoman Turkish regime at the request of the Persian government of the time. That area, which was then Palestine, happens to be in what is now Israel. Here, we summon Dr. Moojan Momen’s cogent defense on this very issue:

The prosecution will undoubtedly drag up the fact that the Baha’i World Centre is in the Haifa-Akka area in the state of Israel. This however is a historical fact that goes back to eighty years before the state of Israel was established. Indeed it was the two leading Muslim monarchs of the world at that time, the Ottoman Sultan and the Shah of Iran, who were responsible for exiling the founder of the Baha’i Faith to Akka, then part of the Ottoman province of Syria, thus resulting eventually in the Baha’i World Centre being established there. If anyone is to blame for the presence of the Baha’is in Israel, it is the Iranian government of that time. If it were being consistent in its accusations, then the Iranian government should also be accusing the Islamic authorities who are in charge of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem of being Israeli agents just because the third most holy site in Islam is situated there4.

Yes, the Baha’i World Centre is located on Mt. Carmel, Israel, in the port-city of Haifa.  Yet Baha’is cannot, by their own religious law, be “Zionists” (whatever that means, beyond being a pejorative deprecation) for the simple reason that they must remain studiously aloof from partisan politics.  And, yes, Baha’i shrines were recently chosen as World Heritage sites—so designated by UNESCO in July 2008.  There’s no denying that.  But consider this social fact: Arab Israelis comprise almost 20% of the population of Israel.  Does this make Arab Israelis “Zionists”?

The charges against the Baha’i seven are pretextual.  They are transparently actuated by religious hatred, pure and simple. Baha’is are ideologically despised—not because they are anti-Islamic—but because they are post-Islamic.

Although we could go on, we offer these clear defenses to the baseless charges of which the seven Baha’i leaders stand accused—without a scintilla of evidence adduced over the past nine months of their imprisonment and without access to their defense counsel— Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi—to help equip those who may, when encountering such accusations, with an easy retort, a ready rejoinder, and a reasonable rebuttal.

Once again, Your Excellency, we respectfully urge you to dismiss these charges as having no foundation in fact.  The seriousness of the allegations raises legitimate fears for the lives of these seven individuals.  We do not argued points of law within your jurisdiction.  And because the Islamic Republic of Iran does not, to the best of our knowledge, follow a common law system of jurisprudence, we cannot offer an analysis of the charge of espionage under Iranian law.  Notwithstanding, kindly allow us to present this honorable Court with the following compelling reasons for dismissing the State’s charges against the accused:

Since, on comparative legal grounds, the case bears no facial semblance to any act of “classical spying” that is criminalized under any statutory “Espionage Act” under any system of jurisprudence, we can only conclude that the State cannot meet its burden of proof by laying out a prima facie case for espionage.

We hasten to correct the State’s misapprehension on some of the finer points of comparative espionage law.  In the West, espionage statutes are typically explicit in phrasing the crime of espionage as an act of obtaining information relating to the national defense to be used to the advantage of any foreign nation (often with no distinction made between friend or enemy).  In light of the foregoing, what “state secrets” have been compromised?  Where is the threat to the State’s external security and internal stability?  The accused are not agents of Israel.  They are not even “minor” espionage agents.  In fact, there is not a shred of reliable evidence that any of the seven accused were involved with any known conspiracy.

Provision for capital punishment in espionage and treason acts is the tenet that forfeiture of the life of the spy or traitor will serve as a deterrent to those who may thereafter be tempted to commit similar acts.  Instantly, this social policy would be frustrated by the wrong outcome in this case. Here, where there is no identifiable act of espionage or treason, any guilty verdict would work a manifest injustice.

Furthermore, we urge this honorable Court to consider the international consequences of the execution of such these sentences.  It is entirely possible that the false accusations of the pending trial—and the unjust sentences that this honorable Court is being asked by the State to contemplate—might supply grist to the mills of the international press and incite anti-Iranian feelings.  It is therefore in the State’s best interest not to proceed in a case that promises to have unmeasured ripple effects internationally in besmirching the noble ideals of justice to which the Islamic Republic of Iran stands committed by its own signature on many international treaties, as well as by the principles of justice embedded in the highest Source for Iranian Law — the Qur’an.  The State is using the instrumentality of the legal system to prosecute what may be fairly characterized as a “show trial” for the benefit of anti-Baha’i hardliners—yet to the great detriment of Iran’s international standing in the community of nations, as well as a betrayal of its own stated principles. Worst of all, the fair name of Islam—which stands for “submission” to the powerful presence of justice under divine precept and praxis—will be tarnished if this travesty of pretextual conspiracy charges is allowed to go forward.

On procedural grounds alone we urge your Excellency to dismiss this case, with prejudice, for lack of due process.  As a signatory of the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Due, Iran has committed itself, under international law, to the exercise of due process.  Due process, however, is absent from this case.  Taking the charitable view that the State’s case here may be the result of invincible ignorance, this would be the best way for all parties to “save face.”

Symbolically, these seven Baha’i leaders represent all Iranian Baha’is.  The international community is watching. The press and media are watching. And the government of Iran  is watching. Thank you for taking this informal submission into consideration.

Most Respectfully,
Iran Press Watch

1 “Iran prosecutor: Bahais, Israeli agents.” Posted on Press TV 2007 (February 15, 2009), http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=85798&sectionid=351020101. Accessed 02/15/09.
2 Dr. Moojan Momen, “A Show-Trial of Seven Leading Baha’is of Iran.” Posted on Iran Press Watch (February 15, 2009), http://www.iranpresswatch.org. Accessed 02/15/09.
3 Dr. Christopher Buck, “Religious Minority Rights.” The Islamic World. Edited by Andrew Rippin. London/New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. 638–655 [final chapter]; idem, “Islam and Minorities: The Case of the Bahá’ís.” Studies in Contemporary Islam 5.1–2 (Spring/Fall 2003): 83–106. Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies (ACSIS), University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, 2–3 May 2003. (Published June 2005.)
4 Dr. Moojan Momen, “A Show-Trial of Seven Leading Baha’is of Iran.” Posted on Iran Press Watch (February 15, 2009), http://www.iranpresswatch.org. Accessed 02/15/09.

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15 Responses

  1. Frederick W. Ming

    February 24, 2009 2:37 am

    This is a moving gesture by persons of Iranian nationality who are willing to demonstrate to the authorities in Iran and the world that they care, and care deeply.

    As a Baha’i of Bermudian nationality, I take this opportunity to thank the authors and Iran Press Watch for the work they are doing in the name of justice and human decency. Their gesture is one that will help to secure that bright future, for all the people of Iran, that Baha’u’llah has so eloquently described in prophetic writings.

    Best wishes and most sincere thanks,

    FW Ming
    Bermuda

    Reply
  2. Mark

    February 24, 2009 5:12 am

    Perhaps this is not the best place to ask this question, but if I vow to help the Baha’is of Iran, will the Baha’is of the future protect the rights of non-Baha’is if the Baha’i Faith ever becomes a powerful force in the world? I have studied the Baha’i books to a degree, and it appears to me that Shoghi Effendi envisioned a future wherein the Baha’i Faith would be the leading religion of a World Government that almost sounds like a theocracy in its own right. Given that Iran today is an “Islamic theocracy” and seeing its violations of human rights, I would be sad to know that I helped an innocent group of people whose descendants would go on to form a “Baha’i theocracy” on a World level, not just for one nation.

    This would not make or break my commitment to speaking out on behalf of innocent Baha’is in Iran, but it does concern me that my speaking out could lead, however indirectly, to yet another theocratic state where one particular religion is the “law of the land”, and every other faith community is under constant pressure to convert or receive unequal treatment to their disadvantage. This is especially true because I am not a Baha’i. I have a fear that my helping the innocent Baha’is of Iran could lead to a future society where non-Baha’is like me would be getting the short end of the stick, and my speaking out for the innocent Baha’is of Iran would have been a daunting case of irony.

    However, I feel very bad for the state the Baha’is of Iran are in, and want to help them badly. But I just have this feeling that in the future the Baha’i Faith will have significant political power in the world and will behave like every other religious institution which had a lot of power—corruptly. As the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts, Absolutely.” This fear will not stop me from campaigning for Baha’i rights in Iran, but it has stifled the energy in how I do it somewhat. If you would answer my concerns, no matter how I might take the answers, I would appreciate that very much.

    Best regards,
    Mark

    Reply
  3. Saratha

    February 24, 2009 6:34 am

    Mark, if you had studied Baha’i writings, you’d have understood that there are no priests in the Baha’i community. Baha’i Assemblies are voted in every year through secret ballot with no campaigning or manipulation. Power is not vested in any individual. It’s the most benign administative system on earth.

    Mankind, having attained maturity are expected to educate themselves in the scriptures and benefit therefrom without indulging in conflict and contention. This Baha’i principle requires Baha’is not to impose on others their understanding of the scriptures but rather to share only if there is a willing ear.

    Noone has anything to fear from Baha’is

    Saratha

    Reply
  4. S.N.

    February 24, 2009 7:26 am

    Mark, one of the teachings of the Bahai faith is “Unity in Diversity”. We are well aware that when the Bahai faith becomes widespread and many people embrace it, there would be still adherents of other religions. We are trained from childhood that different people believing in different religions are like different flowers of a gardent. No matter what color they are, what smell they have, they add to the beautification of the gardent. If all flowers were only of one color, it was very monotonous to look at that garden.

    What is really important is living in peace with the followers of different religions. “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” Baha’ullah

    Kind regards
    A Bahai from Iran

    Reply
  5. Mark

    February 24, 2009 8:18 am

    “Mark, if you had studied Baha’i writings, you’d have understood that there are no priests in the Baha’i community. Baha’i Assemblies are voted in every year through secret ballot with no campaigning or manipulation. Power is not vested in any individual. It’s the most benign administative system on earth.”

    Just to clear something up, Saratha, I *have* studied the Baha’i writings. Perhaps I misunderstood them, but misunderstanding does not equate to not studying. I knew that the Baha’i Faith doesn’t have priests, and the election processes. I was not referring to how local and national spiritual assemblies elect their members every season, but to a future society wherein Shoghi Effendi mentions the concept of a “Baha’i State.” To me, that clearly envisions a future society where the Baha’i Faith is either the majority religion or its teachings have been implemented by the government, and eventually the entire world at large. We should probably take this discussion to another post, because I don’t want it to obscure the article in question which is about the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. That is why I was unsure if it was a relevant place to ask the question

    Reply
  6. Mark

    February 24, 2009 8:25 am

    “Mark, one of the teachings of the Bahai faith is “Unity in Diversity”. We are well aware that when the Bahai faith becomes widespread and many people embrace it, there would be still adherents of other religions. We are trained from childhood that different people believing in different religions are like different flowers of a gardent. No matter what color they are, what smell they have, they add to the beautification of the gardent. If all flowers were only of one color, it was very monotonous to look at that garden.

    What is really important is living in peace with the followers of different religions. “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” Baha’ullah”

    A Baha’i from Iran,

    I am honored to communicate with you. I wonder if we can take this discussion somewhere else, as I don’t think it is relevant to the article at hand. That is entirely my fault, of course.

    Reply
  7. Brooks Garis

    February 24, 2009 12:05 pm

    Whenever the spirit of a religion is applied, for instance in Islam the teaching that “There shall be no compulsion in the matter of religion”, all the world has thrived. When that was the guiding principal in Spain for 700-years till 1492 the Jews, who had been persecuted everywhere in Europe thrived under Islam’s protection and came known as the Sephardim, the people of the shepherd. Hebrew theology was translated into Arabic and Maimoniedes who codified Jewish law was Saladin’s physician. When Omar arrived in Jerusalem he found Christians arguing about the keys to the Holy Sepulcher. He gave them to a retainer and a Moslem family has safeguarded them ever since.

    Fairness, honesty, compassion, maturity -these is the honorable qualities of every religion. If the followers of every religion would follow the teaching of that religion, all would be well.

    According to the Koran, different religions give us the opportunity to compete together in good works. But before this era it was not possible to know as quickly as the speed of light what was going on in the world. It took 600 years for Christianity to reach the farthest reaches of Europe; another 200-years to get to Iceland and a thousand years after that to Samoa.

    So if God were to guide the world’s peoples, different voices would raise the call.

    Humanity advances and the Creator’s rules that guide our greater advancement are the chronologically unfolded religions. All the religions teach constructive acts. It is only the abuse and misrepresentation of religion that encourages destructive acts. Religions teach discernment and fairness.

    If people will follow the spirit of their religions there will be no persecution of any kind. Until that time, let us at exercise the courage to stand up to bullies on behalf of people who are being persecuted. Courage is fundamental to justice and courage on behalf of others is the finest expression of religious truth.

    Reply
  8. Vesal

    February 24, 2009 4:06 pm

    Just a small correction of something that might be misunderstood by someone quick-reading.

    On Item 3, paragraph 2 you wrote:

    “If anyone is to blame for the presence of the Baha’is is Israel, it is the Iranian government of that time.”

    When the correct sentence should say:

    “If anyone is to blame for the presence of the Baha’is in Israel, it is the Iranian government of that time”

    One word (in this case “in” instead of “is”) can make a difference in confusing the reader.

    Reply
  9. Ramin

    February 24, 2009 5:07 pm

    This is my humble understanding of the Writings in the Baha’i Faith.
    If and when the Baha’is become the state religion. Repair to places of worship of other religions, like Islamic mosques, takes precedence over the repair of Baha’i places of worship.
    This is in direct contrast to an experience I had when visiting Bethlehem. I was told by one of the people working in that church that the sects of Christianity could not agree which sect should repair the very church that was built on top of where His Holiness, Christ was born. Therefore the Church was sadly left in a dilapidated state.
    It makes me happy to know that the Baha’i Faith will have such an outlook. And it makes me hopeful for a peaceful future.

    With loving greetings to all,
    Ramin P

    Reply
  10. Mario Larose

    February 24, 2009 5:29 pm

    I am sincerely touched by the way the Iran Press Watch deal with the problem of Persecution of Baha’i in Iran. We pray God to assist all those who are persevered to bring Justice to those innocent victims. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  11. Farhan

    February 24, 2009 5:35 pm

    Mark, there is no reason to fear a theocratic intent from the Baha’is. They do not believe that are to impose their beliefs on any one, nor do they wish to take any power into their own hands. They do believe that the principles and the blue print for a planet unified in it’s diversity that they are now establishing on a small scale, and to which they are inviting all the peoples of the earth, will be one day joyfully and gratefully adopted on a large scale by the peoples of the world.

    Reply
  12. sb

    February 24, 2009 8:54 pm

    Mark,

    I really like your line of questioning! As a aged Baha’i, I would like to add to the above comments with this:

    Upon learning of the life, sacrifice and the Teachings of Baha’u’llah, whose Writings come from His Own Hand, it is clear that this is a vast, deeply crafted universal movement that resembles nothing like what has been known before.

    Baha’is canot participate in partisan politics, develop clergy, dogma, liturgy, or ritual. yet, from my point of view, it works magnificently. It doesn’t jive with the conventional wisdom and yet it a comprehensive alternative for what we have known. it is called Baha’i Administration.

    Since Shoghi Effendi passed away, there has not been a singular leader and there will never be such again. Shoghi Effendi made clear that in the future that as Baha’i governing bodies develop and grow (we are, after all, an infant Faith) they will expand from 9 members to larger numbers.

    So the Baha’i future is one of absolute diversity aimed at unity, with no justifications possible for coercion or bloodshed, as was promised by all the great Messengers of the past. The foundation of this unity is nothing less than the spiritual Teachings of Baha’u’llah.

    Reply
  13. Tom Stevens

    February 26, 2009 3:37 am

    Hi, all!
    I have been a Baha’i since 1964. The first words of Baha-u-llah I read were ” The age of prophecy hath verily ended; the age of enlightenment hath now come.” We are living in a new age that will allow mankind to achieve world unity and peace. Baha’is in the world are working toward this goal. This time there will be no sects splitting the Faith. Time after time certain groups have tried to slow or stop the growth of the Baha’i Faith. Each time the Faith has grown. Please God (Inshallah) these 7 “arrested” in Iran do not have to pay with their lives to prove this point again.
    I would advise everyone who would like to verify this to read the history of the Baha’i Faith. Note that the latest gatherings worldwide show that the Faith has grown in many places of the world: http://news.bahai.org/story/700
    Best regards, Tom

    Reply

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