By AIDA GHAJAR
On the morning of Friday, February 16, Saeed Rezaei, one of the seven members of the former leadership group for Iran’s Baha’i community known as the “Yaran” (“Friends”), was released after serving 10 years in prison. In order to avoid Rezaei’s family and friends waiting outside the prison to greet Rezaei, security guards drove him some distance from the prison and released him there.
The seven Baha’i leaders were arrested in early 2008. The most serious charges against them were espionage, propaganda against the regime and founding an illegal organization. The Revolutionary Court initially sentenced them to 20 years in prison, which was reduced to 10 years on appeal.
Saeed Rezaei, 61, is a prominent agricultural engineer and was the CEO of a company of agricultural machinery in Shiraz before his arrest. His release comes just a few days after seven Baha’is were arrested in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr.
After his arrest in 2008, Rezaei was taken to Evin Prison’s Ward 209, controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence, and spent four months in solitary confinement. He and six other Baha’i leaders spent 27 months in pre-trial detention — in violation of the law that limits detention without sentencing to a short period of time. After standing trial they were transferred to Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj near Tehran, and spent six months with ordinary prisoners, until they were moved to Ward 12, where prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are kept.
In an interview with IranWire after being freed, Saeed Rezaei said that his most difficult time in prison was when he was interrogated. During that time he had no access to a lawyer, and was not allowed to talk or meet with his family. The interrogators pressured Baha’i leaders to confess that they were spies. “We strongly denied this accusation,” he said.
Abused Mentally and Physically
During interrogations, the Baha’i leaders were abused both mentally and physically. Prison guards pushed and insulted them, and threatened them repeatedly. Rezaei told IranWire that some of the Baha’i leaders who remain in prison were also flogged. Authorities threatened to arrest Rezaei’s wife and daughters if he refused to cooperate.
Judge Mohammad Moghiseh conducted the trial of the Yaran leadership group. Over the last several years, human rights organizations and the European Union have singled out Moghiseh and other judges for gross human rights violations. The Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mahnaz Parakand and Hadi Esmaeilzadeh were the group’s lawyers. At the trial, they produced a document proving that the Intelligence Ministry had informed the judiciary that the accused were not spies. Shirin Ebadi and Mahnaz Parakand have now left Iran, Abdolfattah Soltani is currently in prison and Hadi Esmaeilzadeh lost his job as a university professor.
“The counter-espionage department of the Intelligence Ministry had issued a letter saying that until we were arrested they had found no evidence that we were spies,” Rezaei told IranWire. “It was the Intelligence Ministry that said this. At the trial Mr. Soltani told Judge Moghiseh: ‘you must be impartial in judgment between the indictment by the prosecutor and the defense by the lawyers but, practically, you are even ahead of the prosecution.”
In addition to the defense presented by the lawyers, the Baha’i leaders had prepared their own statement that they hoped to enter into court proceedings. “The judge would not even allow us to read this statement of defense and constantly interrupted us,” said Rezaei. “It took more than two hours to read something that could have been read in a quarter of an hour. They held three court sessions. They had said that the trial would be open to the public, but they would not allow our families in, who were at the door. We said that either they must hold a public hearing or that they must announce that it was a closed-door trial. The lawyers refused to offer defense. We left the court three times until, at last, they held [the trial in] an open court at the fourth session and allowed our families in. They brought in a camera that apparently belonged to the Intelligence Ministry and the judiciary and they recorded the whole thing.”
During his 10 years in prison, in addition to the harassment he faced, Saeed Rezaee experienced physical problems. He says that 95 percent of his physical suffering started during his incarceration, including heart and knee problems. In 10 years he was not granted any leave of absence, as is customary for Iranian prisoners serving long sentences — not even for one day. He had requested a medical furlough but the authorities and prison officials rejected his request, even though the Legal Medical Organization and specialist doctors had agreed that he needed arthroscopic knee surgery that required three months of recovery in the hospital.
“The prison provides ordinary medical services like general practitioners,” said Rezaei, “or a couple of specialists might pay a visit. But the prison lacks facilities like MRIs or radiology [equipment].” A few times he was sent under guard to the hospital for an angiography. About seven months ago, he required another angiography, but the prison officials told him that he could only go to the hospital if he went in prison uniform. He refused and as a result, his blood vessels went unchecked.
Co-existence and Respect in prison
Now, after 10 years in prison, Rezaei says his best and lasting memories are about the “co-existence” of different beliefs and thoughts he had access to while he was incarcerated. “Both ordinary and political prisoners looked at us as their compatriots,” he told IranWire. “After spending some time together, a peaceful co-existence among us emerged. Even if some [prisoners] were cold toward us for a few weeks, a friendship developed after we lived together. Their respect for us was very pleasant. In prison, we achieved co-existence with political prisoners who thought differently from us, and this was an extraordinary experience for both sides. Now we have no doubt that if Iranian people were free and if their minds were not poisoned against each other, they could live together. Our experience [in prison] can be realized across the whole of Iran.”
Like other prisoners, Saeed Rezaei received news about what was happening in Iran, and especially about the Baha’is, through his weekly meetings with his family. They told him about the continued ban on Baha’is from attending institutions of higher education, about closures of their businesses and about the arrests of Baha’is across Iran. He says that despite these injustices still taking place in Iran, “it is encouraging and morale-boosting that the civil and media activists cover this news and in many cases defend the civil rights that we have been denied. In prison this coverage made us happy. Don’t believe that covering this news is futile.”
In his last moments of incarceration, Rezaei’s conversation with his fellow inmates concerned the futility of the regime’s treatment of the Baha’is. “’What was the use of this 10 years in prison?’ they asked me. ‘Have you given up your beliefs?’ I answered that I had not. An inmate friend said: ‘This imprisonment did nobody any good, neither you nor them.’ This is a truth that the rulers of the country will realize sooner or later. I have no idea when, but we have to stay in Iran until the misunderstandings are resolved.”
An Exclusive Interview With the Freed Baha’i Leader, September 19, 2017