By AIDA GHAJAR
Mahvash Sabet, one of seven members of the former leadership group for Iran’s Baha’i community, was released on the afternoon of Monday, September 18 after serving 10 years in prison. Sabet and six other members of the group known as “the Yaran,” or “the friends,” were arrested in early 2008. Sabet is the first of the group to be released.
Mahvash Sabet was summoned to answer questions in March 2008 and arrested soon after. She was taken to the intelligence ministry’s detention center in Mashhad and kept there for two months and three weeks, although she was occasionally sent to Vakilabad Prison because, according to prison officials, no female guards were on duty at night.
She spent two and half years in solitary confinement, and altogether served time in seven security and general prison wards.
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Sabet was a school teacher and a school principal and worked with Iran’s National Literacy Campaign. After the revolution, like many other Baha’is, she was expelled from teaching. The Baha’is set up the ad-hoc leadership group the Yaran after the new Islamic government banned Baha’i formal institutions.
Her love for education led her to establish, along with a group of other Baha’is, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in 1987. As she told IranWire, she was charged with “espionage for hostile governments” and “forming an illegal group” as punishment.
“I did not expect prison,” she told IranWire after her release, “but they arrested me without a warrant. I thought I was to answer questions as the secretary of the Yaran. Instead I was arrested and interrogated every day at the intelligence ministry’s detention center. After that I was transferred to Ward 209 of Evin Prison and the interrogations started all over again. I went through three periods of intense interrogations each time that I was transferred, and spent the first two and a half years in a closed-door cell. I was in solitary for seven months before Fariba Kamalabadi [another Baha’i leader] was transferred to my cell.”
Two and a half years in a closed cell had damaging psychological and physical consequences. Sabet suffered from osteoporosis even before her arrest, and was denied medical attention in jail. When she did finally get medical attention the doctor suspected that her pelvis had been fractured. She was sent to a hospital under security measures and was hospitalized for 15 days. “They found out that it was not fractured after all,” she says, “but I had problems because I was kept in a closed cell. They gave me some medical attention.”
Even the Lawyers Suffered Consequences
Before the first session of her trial, Sabet was interrogated repeatedly and was then forced to go through a long period of formal questioning at a revolutionary court. Her trial took place at Branch 28 of the court under Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, who has been repeatedly accused by human right organizations and the European Union of violating the rights of defendants. At the time, the Baha’i leaders had four lawyers: The Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Abdolfattah Soltani, Hadi Esmaeilzadeh and Mahnaz Parakand. But the lawyers themselves either ended up in prison or in exile. Hadi Esmaeilzadeh and Abdolfattah Soltani were sentenced to prison; Esmaeilzadeh has since died. Shirin Ebadi and Mahnaz Parakand both now live in exile.
The lower court sentenced Mahvash Sabet and other Baha’i leaders to 20 years in prison each. They faced multiple charges but were sentenced on two counts: “Espionage for a hostile government” and “forming an illegal group.”
Each one of these two charges carries a sentence of 10 years, but the appeals court cleared them of the charge of working with hostile governments. The Prosecutor General of Iran, however, called the appeals court verdict “contrary to sharia [law]” and their sentences were increased to 20 years again. But, according to Article 134 of the Islamic Republic Penal Code, they had to serve only the longest sentence, i.e. 10 years. Mahvash Sabet is the first of the seven Baha’i leaders to be released under this provision and it is expected that the other six will be released in the next six months.
“They informed us about the verdict after two and a half years,” says Sabet. “Fariba Kamalabadi and I were then transferred to the communal ward of Rajaei Shahr Prison [near Tehran]. After spending two and a half years in total silence, we were surrounded by the din and commotion of a communal ward. We spent 10 months at that prison and then all of us were transferred to Gharchak and Shahr-e Rey prisons. Then after two weeks we were transferred again to the drug addicts’ ward at Evin Prison. Female political prisoners were also brought to that ward. After a while, though, they transferred us to another ward where I spent the last six years of my sentence.”
Mahvash Sabet received different treatment in various prisons. She remembers one experience in particular. She shared a cell with a religious woman who organized religious ceremonies for other Shia women in the prison. “It was the first time that we were placed next to each other in a cell,” Sabet says. “At nights we rested our heads on the same blanket and talked. I asked her: ‘aren’t you uncomfortable living with two Baha’is?’ and she said: ‘I am very happy that my prejudices have been wiped out.’ We formed the deepest friendships in prison. Many women from different groups came and went. There were even prisoners who were members of well-known families in the government. These friendships consoled us during those 10 years. It gave us hope and motivated us to survive prison.”
During these 10 years, Mahvash Sabet was not informed about what was happening within the Baha’i community. For her, she says, this was her “most unhappy” experience. Not only could they could not get any news of the Baha’i community, they were denied access to Baha’i texts too.
But her most lasting memories of prison were knowing other prisoners who came to accept the fact that Baha’is are not spies — a claim that Iranian officials often make when talking about Baha’is. “I honor the memory that none of the inmates who got to know us believed we were spies,” says Sabet. “They did not believe that we have turned our backs on our country because of our religious beliefs. None of them believed that we did not love our beloved country. We never confessed that we were spies — not during the interrogations and not at the trial. Our lawyers repeatedly said in interviews that we were not spies. It warmed our hearts that people rejected the charge of espionage that has been directed at us for years and we were unable to disprove it. This was our greatest motivation for resisting.”
Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, authorities have accused Baha’is of spying for Israel. Early on after the revolution, many Baha’is were executed for espionage. The central argument for handing down the charge has been that the Baha’i religious center is based in Israel. According to Mahnaz Parakand, one of the lawyers who represented Mahvash Sabet and other jailed Baha’is, the Islamic Republic judiciary argued that since the center in Israel is tax-exempt, then the Baha’is must be spying for Israel. The simple fact, however, is that all religious organizations are tax-exempt in Israel, including those belonging to Muslims.